In searching for the origins of the term ‘nihilism’ we are brought back to a moment in history marking a great turning point in Europe. Great Britain had just won what has since been called “the first world war” (The Seven Years War) and its market-based colonial empire could now extend itself across the oceans of the earth “freely.” New ideas about human nature and nature itself had sprouted in France and would charge a gigantic revolution, which had vast consequences everywhere. A faith in reason brought with it a promise of reform and an understanding that scientific inquiry into the natural world would reveal natures laws and even the secret to human happiness. With the expanded development of humanity’s capacity to reason, universal truths would soon be discovered, religious principles would receive firm foundational support, a just ordering of the world could be maintained, and people would generally get smarter. But The Age of Enlightenment would see challenges within its own discourse that would bring it to a crisis in the late eighteenth century. Reason and the authority it claimed would eventually come into conflict with the authority of the church or traditional faith in general. Very few could accept resting on atheistic conclusions in Germany as David Hume’s skeptical atheism could in Great Britain, yet Hume’s arguments gained wide attention. Reason, criticism, faith, nature: where did the authority lie? What would become of society when the human powers of reason were fully actualized?Continue reading “Origins of the Term ‘Nihilism’”
The final bounty that the Bebop crew sets after together tests the crew’s mettle like none other as they go after the leader of a cult. A man named Londis has been appearing on TV and convincing people to join his cyborg cult or “migration.” He has purportedly found a way to store someone’s brain activity – all of the electrical patterns in the brain and so the entire cognitive activity of a person – into data. Once your “soul” is digitalized and mapped into electron-silicon content instead of electron-neural content, you can then release that soul from the body and join the ethereal space of the internet. What if our minds or souls could escape the confines of our bodies and exist somewhere else? It’s an old thought experiment with a Cowboy Bebop twist: a figurehead has created a scandal by forming a cult around his new “technology” and is killing people with it. People get the word that they can leave their impure bodies behind and find ascetic bliss in the “other world” of the internet and they start committing suicide or otherwise going missing. The awakening that the SCRATCH movement preaches is that of the spirit transforming from the imperfect material world to the perfect world of spirit, via a new piece of technology whose powers people are unsure of. The old mind-body problem has taken on a new dimension with the new ability to store a massive amount of material data, and now people are becoming convinced that living in the internet can make their spirits immortal. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop, part three”
The next time we get to peer into Spike’s journey is the two part Jupiter Jazz. Here we learn more about the Vicious vs. Spike dynamic, the politics of Spike’s old syndicate, and we even get a fragment of a cosmology fit for the world of Cowboy Bebop. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop, part two”
Cowboy Bebop crams so many different styles from visual art, music, and storytelling together that it becomes easy to miss how profoundly deep it reaches into the human condition. The allure of wayward dreams, friendship and finding home, and facing up to a difficult past and certain death all subsist beneath the flare of this single 26-episode season. Fight scenes dazzle with such exuberance, the soundtrack composed by Yoko Kano and performed by The Seatbelts unleashes a fury of notes reminiscent of all-night jam-sessions, and the tv show’s writing so seamlessly weaves death-defying adventure with boredom and bickering-inducing downtime that it’s easy to get caught up with the Bebop crew. Look close enough at the show and you will find more than an abundance of style; Cowboy Bebop’s brilliance lies in capturing the affections of an entire generation and putting them into a single story.
It’s a bold claim, as bold as the sign the show throws up in the middle of an episode, prompting a commercial break, that reads: “The work which will become a new genre of its own will be called Cowboy Bebop.” But hang with me a bit longer. This anime tv show launched in Japan in 1998 to universal praise. It tops many a list of best anime shows of all time and I am not alone in my unflinching praise of it as a masterful piece of art. What I will do here is attempt to probe Cowboy Bebop and unearth some things that might have been missed by viewers, hoping to explain just what it is that has kept this show so fresh. Continue reading “On Cowboy Bebop”
Here is a link to a video of Simon Critchley at the European Graduate School. His talk begins with Nietzsche on the problem of Nihilism and moves on towards his meta-ethical schema of the infinite demand.
Some take-away notes:
– In thinking with Nietzsche we have lost belief in the world. The final moment of nihilism is the understanding that the true world of being is an illusion and there is only “the reality of becoming”.
– the Christian will-to-truth has been inverted. What was true has been found to be false and meaninglessness sets in: “”why?” finds no answer.”
– Nietzsche is not a nihilist according to Critchley but develops his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism.
– Nietzsche’s eternal return is the ultimate a test of endurance. It is the most burdensome thought one can have and one’s ability to endure the eternal return is a measure of one’s strength.
– Critchley interprets the eternal return as an ethical thought, and Nietzsche as a “super-Kantian” who gives a moral law without any metaphysical guarantee. He acknowledges that there are other competing interpretations. “Nietzsche is like the Talmud”.
– the response to nihilism has taken on a split between active and passive forms.
Passive nihilism being a withdrawal from the world that has been lost: give it all up, it’s gone.
Active nihilism being the project of destroying the old world and creating a new one.
– this distinction is a mere model though, alternatives and mixtures between the two could be devised.
– Kant’s categorical imperative is an autonomous choice of a subject, an internal agreement with the Universal moral law.
– Levinas’s ethics is a heteronomous confrontation of the face of the other that is transformed in his later work into an movement that invades the subject and divides it. The dividual, schizo-subject is torn between itself but by an external other that demands its commitment.
– Critchley believes that ethics is by nature an infinite demand that splits a subject in two and internalizes the ethical responsibility to the other. This is a “Meta-Ethical” schema of
– Critchley is holding out for the formation of an Hegemonic body-assemblage composed of ethical subjects centered around a name (LGBT, Migrant, Worker, etc.).
– he is vocally unconcerned about an internalized self-hatred. Nietzsche is very concerned with it, and takes great pains to diagnose the resentment of the slavish weakness of morality vs. ethics.
– **Critchley does not make a hard distinction between Ethics and Morality**
– his Meta-Ethics is the Logic of Debt.
This is especially interesting in his engagement with David Graeber in the end of his book Infinitely Demanding. Since then, the greatest force for social change in my view has been the occupy movement of which Graeber has played a big role in. The Strike Debt movement similarly has a wide reaching potential to completely transform the world-economy and rescue us from this prolonged Capitalist crisis. But here is a series of very weighty questions that arise form this debate:
Will a revolutionary movement today come from a hegemony of dividuals committed to an ethical principle and organized around a name? Or is the logic of indebtedness – individuals perpetually behind on their internalized responsibility to pay back their borrowed value – precisely what is to be challenged?
Would a post-nihilist ethic still necessarily involve this Meta-Ethical structure or would it be possible to reinterpret debt as the basis for social cooperation instead of a theological skeleton?
A one point in his The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley says “To be is to be in debt.” In a Heideggerian exegesis on the structure of belief. The subjective ethical demand is and remains based on an ontology still tinged with the image of thought that can be rooted in the (subject-object) distinction.
Later in the lecture, Critchley misinterprets Foucault’s work on the care of the self as an ethics that he subscribes to, rather than a genealogy of the subject as it was formed in the long history of Greek-Roman-Christian technologies. Couldn’t we imagine a revolutionary practice that does not take the form of a moral subject?
Perhaps one way to respond to nihilism would be to refuse the ethical demands that are placed on one and resolutely declare: “I am not in your debt anymore”. Perhaps Striking at Debt would be a viable post-nihilist praxis. One way or another, getting past nihilism is only the beginning.
This time from his latest God and Mythico-Poetic Thought.
Rather than reject religion outright, how about rejecting the monotheism that requires inward directed souls/subjects to declare their belief in a perfect God? The internalized desire of the believer-subject is reproduced as well in Descartes who then can split himself from the external world of “Nature”, which is then in turn reproduced in the discourse of naturalist science. Both science and religion contain in their theories an ideal observer distinct from the external world; in one case an omnipresent God, in the other a complete world both external to the believer and total at once. Physics too has its religious pretensions in that elusive quest for the theory of everything.
The problem as I see it is rather in conceiving Nature as a whole and not working through its persistent aporias. We’re it not demanded to achieve a theory of Nature that matches or replaces a belief in Everything, scientists could be seen as producing accurate measurements without being hounded by deniers for being “just a theory”.
The mythico-poetic is of a different form than religions which force subjects to believe in a god. It is more like a background of cultural signifiers which make meaningful discourse possible just as much as the “wiredness” of our bodies. They contain many creation myths that do not explain in the same way as an individual explaining a foundational belief because they provide a foundational background for a common, shared cultural imagination.
The distinction I am drawing here is between subjective-belief in The universe and universes of symbolic reference as diverse as their are isolated cultures. This is possibly an ontological distinction, perhaps pertaining to the ground needed to have the the figure of a belief in general. I’m thinking now of the function of “the full body of the earth, the cosmic egg” in Deleuze and Guattari’s 3rd chapter of Anti-Oedipus. It plays the role of a territorial beginning from which flows and codings then implement primordial inscription. Still a rough draft of an interpretation of a massive work though.
Levi Bryant has drawn up a brief manifesto of a nihilist reflection on the world and life’s place in the one and only world as a mere accident. His materialism in the matters of human belief brings forth succinctly and strikingly a conception of the world as void that is reminiscent of Lucretius. World here functions as a pure void, an empty space on which the dance of matter takes place. This distinction of matter and world seems to recreate the full/empty binary which then is grafted on to existence as a whole, or, the universe. The manifesto is well worth a read and long contemplation, as well as a follow up from arranjames.
But must we abide by these terms and this conceptual framework? The world conceived as it is here is doomed from the start to void and nothingness, which is clearly the only conclusion that could follow from this conceptual treatment. When imagining the world as a single unified place (and this must be an exercise in the imagination, or perhaps an intellectual excursus within a conceptual model), it could not possibly be full and perfectly meaningful to the point of which a perfectly understood significance could give cultural actors access to it. The world is at once occupying the figure and the ground, holding both the indisputable ’thereness’ of existence as object and also the setting, place, or environment upon which all objects dwell. Lying within this word is the collapsed distinction which at first allows for a meaningful object to become a thing under consideration with its own properties, tendencies, structures, and relations to other objects. An object must always ’be’ amidst a backdrop, a backdrop which tries to attain distinctly objective status as a cognizant thing when the unification meant for an object is “outsourced” to its own ground.
This linguistic movement of a binary opposition (figure/ground) is accompanied by the enormous successes of scientific institutions which have brought along with them a discourse rife with philosophical undertones of disinterested objectivism. However, these matters are largely ignored by today’s scientists and left to the “lofty intellectuals” so they can do their work of infinite knowledge production in their secure, unchallenged ’world’. Their experiments, results, and the method so fruitful in producing useful technologies for their nations do indeed prove themselves over and over again to be of great worth. Though the dis-coveries of these material things in their patterned movement can lay claim to truth in the minimally predictive sense, when science moves to theory and, either consciously or unconsciously, harkens back to the beginnings of science in the certainty, finality, and universality it must (if sincerity and honesty is given to the words and concepts with which they construct those theories) admit to itself that it is engaging in philosophy. Recourse is always given to a history of actors, experimenters, and observers that carry science from one new mode to the next, and the unifying thread of science does indeed have a history that goes as far back as when ’physics’ was called ’natural philosophy’.
Bringing up the paradoxes and entanglements of science with regards to the nihilistic refusal of meaningful belief in the world is can be of some utility here since it problematizes both subjective commitment and disinterested (supposedly non-subjective) knowledge. If the separation of subject and object would be held apart so firmly, the subject would be forced to have as its object of conscious adherence (ideology if you want) the forced choice between a foundational social/ego or bare objects/things. I believe things are more complicated and intertwined along with Merleu-Ponty. The reflective and inward-folding that a solitary writer is privy to can be also recognized as an object in the “mind-space” so as to balance the linguistic relationship. A sentence that makes sense, written down or spoken between those within a common discourse must be the result of an actor in a performance – and on a stage. Ideas are inextricable in thinking about the world and any of its particular objects and we must place them some*where* – as we must do with objects, placing them in the world. However, when the object tries to become its own ground, to take over the whole stage as it were, we get an idea that attempts to both produce its own existence and declare for itself nothing at all.
This is an extremely important topic, since I have both flirted with nihilism and remain very open to the Spinozist-Lucretian-Nietzsche Delueze thread that treats nothingness as nothing (as a mere linguistic nothing and not a source of creation or attachment). This all set within the problem of global warming and the threat of ecological collapse which I want to hold out as avoidable. There is so much still yet to be done.
Having gone this far into the labyrinth of theory I should make something clear: these thoughts gave been germinating in my mind for quite some time now from various sources. But those consistent bloggers have made it seem like there was a community of participants willing to read what I wrote and I owe you all thanks for inspiring me to experiment with this mode of expression. It is very strange indeed having so many ideas floating around both the Internet and my face to face encounters and this reassures me that I am onto the right track with regard to the topics, even if the content is disputable. A great deal of my influence has come from reaching out into other spheres and keeping running debates with friends and fellow autodidacts, but blogs allow rough thought to just “get out there” and be seen. The books that I’m drawing from in this piece which I haven’t yet been able to make good enough essays about yet are Cornelius Castoriadis’s Crossroads in the Labyrinth (a staggering work of theoretical genius), Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests, and Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. I’ll get around to coming up with more substantial works on these books soon since they have been so educational and I want to share.
As a teaser: the social actor is inextricably bound up with yet opposed to Nature. Nature is less a world than it is a labyrinth. The place, region, or territory is neither neutral or empty. The place of nature (seeing as it is that the social must juxtapose with nature) is the forest.
A direct engagement in a response that Tim Morton made to my projected stress onto him about James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory and the imminent collapse of the biosphere:
The positive and negative feedback loops that Lovelock uses in his Gaia Theory operate as systemic interactions between objects that accelerate one way or the other. Either they unleash certain objects that wreak havoc on the total of the environment of the Earth and disrupt the balance that Lovelock believes stabilizes the Earth to make it habitable for life, or the feedback loops ‘cancel out’ negatively and balance the objects in the environment. The negative feedbacks have certain objects and the processes in which they are caught up in pushing against each other, working towards a goal of hospitality for life and complexity (life and its mutations into new life forms). These processes of positive and negative feedback are like the difference between unchecked expansion of empires or viruses and the system of checks and balances or the limits that environments pose on the breeding of populations beyond a certain “threshold”.
Positive feedback loops have a potential of spiraling out of control and disrupting the environment to such an extent that most of the living beings cannot cope, for (as Lovelock claims) the loops that have persisted for a few billion years (1/4 of the supposed life of the universe) have altered to such an extent that the biodiversity working its complexifying magic would be seriously stunted: most life and species would die off. This is the terrifying thought that Lovelock is said to have uncovered and I sought out Tim Morton’s advice on, seeing as his ecological thought is so penetrating and formative of my own thought (still in its early stages). His response is two-part and can be found here and here.
Morton sees the holism of Lovelock as a form of Big Modernity on which we project a metaphysics of presence. Not having come to grips with “the nothingness in the phenomenal-thing gap”, we readers are narrowed down into a forced choice and can only resort to our particular decisions or some grand project of modern technological advance. The grand technological fix of the future that humans can make to the biosphere at large would be the only option to maintain the constant presence of Gaia, preserving our ‘more present than thou’ attitude of an existing Reality. It is the only alternative to one’s less significant decisions to drive a car (spilling CO2 into the air) or not when the holism of Gaia Theory is under consideration, or so Morton thinks. Relying on a technological salvation from the apocalypse to save the presence of the Real would be the only thing else one could think of in contrast to the decision to carefully measure one’s individual *carbon footprint* – insignificant considered in isolation. Morton seems to think that the fire and brimstone of Lovelock’s lament over the destruction of the Gaian aspect of the biosphere forces us into an impossible position that leads to cynicism and resignation, due to our (the reader’s) divided powerlessness at such a really existing entity.
This giant entity is an environment as well as a quasi-fiction (he named it after a goddess), and, being a kind of Whole, it is irreducible to the component parts that make it up – swallowing our actions in their individuality (the reader reading alone) up into obscurity. But the problem of the whole remains, only now we can only dream of the potential for a “great future innovation” to save us. The problem I have with this interpretation of Gaia (that terra-ism necessarily follows from such holism) is that Gaia is not considered more real or present than something else but a mere self-organization of matter in a far from equilibrium condition. It doesn’t seek the reality of presence in the way that Nature or the external world in its totality does but simply describes a scenario in which a machine has come to self-regulate given certain conditions, namely, being far from equilibrium. There is a newish science to this phenomenon of self-organization that can be both modeled virtually and observed, as Manuel DeLanda has shown in his impressive works. Gaia is just a localized theory of this science in the planet Earth system.
The feedback loops that Lovelock harps on have indeed stabilized an environment that accommodates life. I have no problem with the usage of a mythical goddess to articulate an argument about a process that one has discovered, but it is in taking this thing as a whole that issues crop up. Lovelock makes a mistake by calling this thing a whole, indeed a direct contrast to the reductionism so often characteristic of scientific inquiry. The process of regulating materials in a systematic way has made life habitable on planet Earth: negative feedback loops have worked wonders in this far from equilibrium situation.
In spite of what Morton says, Lovelock does assert that for humanity to be burdened by the tasks that Gaia does for free would require way more central planning than any previous war and is near impossible. His solution is to embrace nuclear energy with all of its dangers in order to save civilization which he so reveres from carbon emissions. I don’t see civilization as such a thing that needs protection but instead point to a more ecological existence that empires and capitalists spawning from civilization have mostly tarnished. Lovelock is stuck with a desire to keep civilization while simultaneously understanding that it’s own unquenchable desire for growth is what is besieging Gaia. To his credit, he (a scientist) understands the limits of reductionist thinking, the harmonious-primordial-natural past and linear causality; unfortunately, he moves back to holism to explain the self-organization of Gaia. Perhaps there is a way to fuse self-organizing thinking with the ecological thought and not get hung up on Nature, Civilization, or other ‘Wholes’.
I am convinced of the truth of Lovelock’s theory, especially after reading about the science of self-organized phenomenon in far from equilibrium conditions in Prigogine and Stengers’ ‘Order Out of Chaos’. As a whole, a self-organizing process is able to detach itself from the parts that supposedly make it up – the things that are organized by Gaia. But the part-whole distinction raises up old conceptual formulations that are hard to shed. As something different from the component parts that compose it, Gaia seems to most like a transcendent being external to those parts. This is crucial and hard to fathom: Gaia is only a mythological being, a name standing in for a process that functions as a balancing act. It cannot really lay claim to the whole, but it is still a self-generating process far away from the equilibrium of classical physics and the concepts of the generic philosophical tradition.
We the readers and actors need not defer to some emancipatory future technology or bear the responsibility of global warming on our own personal shoulders, but the processes that Gaia allows must be rigorously defended somehow even if we don’t see clearly what that tract would look like. It makes no practical difference if one sees this as Gaia to be vanguarded or multiple processes that need to be maintained, so long as the bodies are mobilized in a way that life can go on instead of be attacked by its environment. Mythologizing a discovery of science in self-organized activity, an oddity to beings attracted by symmetry and having employed causal reasoning for so long, could be a benefit to the goal of keeping this system life-sustainable or not. A familiar name helps one grow accustomed to an unfamiliar, foreign idea. One way or another, this process is under extreme and abrupt stress and there is little time to reorganize human societies so as to keep the process flowing.
A process. This process will continue to assert itself regardless of what we humans do, but we are severely weakening it, and by weakening this process we will drastically weaken life’s capability to thrive. That there are a few million people scraping out for survival in the polar regions instead of bountiful biodiversity is an awful scenario; I really don’t mind if I have to resort to ethics or vitalist centralism to assert this – we have an obligation to both continue living (this includes non-humans) and to obey the processes of our environment that support our living once we have understood these processes (scientifically or otherwise). Having the means to conceptualize – or just even phenomenologically perceive the self-organization of one’s surroundings intuitively (like “mother earth is provider of us all and must be cared for” or whatever) – how contingent one’s life and each other’s life is on those systemic flows is a legitimate, justified reason to preserve that self-organized stability and not let it cross that threshold. Preventing the irreversible processes that will be unleashed after reaching a 2 degree rise in temperature are an ethical obligation unlike any injustice to the poor, the animals, or the environment because *one* or *we* living creatures cannot exist without the health of Gaia (the self-organization of the biosphere) from the outset. Perhaps using the term “ethics” is inadequate, but it’s the best we’ve got – without it, we humans will allow that which gives us life to dissolve (not disappear), all the while throwing our hands up and saying “oh well, that’s just how it goes!” when we could have stopped it and continued flourishing for who knows how much longer. Fossil fuel consumption is chipping away at the planet’s ability to foster life, it is time we face this fact and act so as to let life prosper again.
This failure to understand and transform our activity in light of Lovelock’s elaboration of Gaia(self-organization in the biosphere) would be an instance of life in self-destruct mode instead a mutually beneficial life-Gaia ecological mode. Life needs no verbal legitimation to persevere, but now we can chose an orientation that will continue life in a more life-favoring way or go into an era of mass death, extinction, and scarcity. Indeed, given the right plan and commitment of certain individuals and the proliferation of this new knowledge of self-organization among the correct population of decision-makers, a plan to continue the comfortable hospitability that our planet has provided us living creatures could be carried through. It is so obviously more desirable, both ecologically and vitalistically, to work towards this outcome that it is not a stretch to say that any elaboration leading towards an outcome incompatible with this self-regulating behavior (given that one understands these Gaian processes) is life-negating nihilism. In short, to disregard Gaia is to disregard that which conditions life – to be ambivalent about the continuation and enjoyment of life.
The apocalypse is on the horizon: the movies, video-games, and literature about zombies and post-apocalypse are on to something. There is a threshold that we cannot cross before catalysts take effect and the planet will be put on an irreversible course that will make our human lives and other animal’s lives a living hell. Yes, we need to act now positively and not in a cynical mode where the terrible event is off in the distance and inevitable, or a preservationist mode where as-yet-unimagined technology is the only thing that can save the Presence of Nature. But we must understand that there is a threshold of temperature rising that we cannot cross for it will create positive feedback loops that will place all of Earth’s creatures in a far less desirable state than the one we have now. A desirable state would be one where life strives with less pushback from from its environment, and the disparity of crossing the threshold and not crossing the threshold is staggering. There are folks who understand this and are trying to stop it like Bill McKibben with his essay on Global Warming’s Terrifying Math and David Roberts’ Tedx video in Grist.
This is an strange moment – perhaps the greatest and most epic moment that humans have been placed in: we know that our own stabilized practices will mutilate and impede the existence of life and we can change them – all that is left is to figure out *how to stop these practices*. When it comes to strategizing on actions I am all ears.
It is a comparably few who understand these processes of self-regulation and just how much damage to them is being done. The rapid industrialization of the twentieth century is like the World of the Forms crashing down on the Earth and stratifying it in its own permanent vision of equilibrium – all the while ignoring the fact that the biosphere of Earth operates in a *far from equilibrium situation*. Our human desire for elegant symmetry and equality in our theory could very well cause a mass die off that also could have been prevented by humans. Industrialization has allowed a clever and adaptive species to put the carbon in the ground into the air and, without a radical shift in practice, set this self-organizing system back 100,000 years. This is the basis for an ecological ethics. An ecological ethics must include not just things and bodies – living and non-living – but processes: systems that operate and disparaging scales such as those in far from equilibrium conditions resisting entropy. This is crucial to the continued prosperity of living things either human or non-human for the next 100,000 years.
I’m curious about this difference I have made here between things/objects and processes/systems. I had a twitter battle with Levi Bryant over Object Oriented Ontology (you’ll have to search if you want to find it since I don’t know how to get the conversarion history link – but it would be worth searching @onticologist with @billrosethorn) and its potential inability to think the latter. I don’t want to jump to conclusions but invite more conversation on this subject. This is something Lovelock has internalized about skeptical scientific inquiry: after his initial Gaia Hypothesis buckled under the poignant critique of Richard Dawkins he accepted its defeat and retooled it to make a more robust theory – holism issues aside. Similarly I want to be open to an ontology that is held by such penetrating thinkers as Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Graham Harman. This is far too important a topic to let academic quarrels get in the way and I have always viewed criticism as a positive, life-affirming exercise done between friends and not as polemics.
We need not care about the outcome of the Earth and the life in it. Our thoughts and concerns are infinitely moldable into one form or another. But to take the whatever attitude is to deny that which springs up from what one is (if it is reading this right now): A Life! This is nihilism and it takes many forms along with the thoughts we conjure up in our discourses. It is a topic that needs more attention on its own. As Nietzsche coaches us, and Deleuze constantly reminds us in Nietzsche and Philosophy, to desire nothing is still to desire. We cannot rid ourselves of the will to power of life, and to will nothingness is still to will – perhaps even more intensely. I end with this because when I met Tim Morton on Market Street in San Francisco, a few words of his words still ring true in my mind to this day: nihilism is not something one arrives at but something one must pass through. The good stuff comes after passing through nothingness.
I mentioned earlier the possibility of a joint venture between the ecological thought all this self/process theory. I am becoming more and more convinced that how we deal with the thought of nihility – nothingness – is the great question for this epic problem.
Here’s to a more hopeful future.
This is a wonderful talk from Simon Critchley about contemporary politics and the allure of utopian projects. I watched it many times and had its ideas at the forefront of my mind while occupying.
That first line (after the German) resounds with truth: “We are living through a long anti-1960’s”.
Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa: Of the Valley of the Wind is a cautionary tale of environmental devastation and mass death set in a post-apocalyptic fantasy world. But it is much more than that. Nausicaa herself wrestles with some of the traps of nihilism in hallucinatory dream sequences on her quest to foster the will to live in a world of crisis. She is a quick and assertive warrior princess in battle, but her concerns call out much farther than the battle at hand and point towards the lives of non-human creatures and the greater environment which she admires and has a deep connection to.
Human folly is in full display on this manga adventure, and Nausicaa’s ultimate task is to fight a mystical order of thought plaguing humans and preventing a ecological social existence affirming life. There are god-warriors, telepathy, and weird spirit battles in dream-space, but the real demon in this fantasy story is a bad mixture of despotism, technological abuse, and misplaced hope in a ‘pure world’ coming from imperial human societies. Nausicaa instinctively feels that the greatest danger lies not with the enemy on the battlefield or any single environmental threat to civilization (as many in the story do) but a certain kind of morality carried over from the past clouding our judgement in times of war, crisis, and rapid environmental change. Intuition factors in heavily in moving her adventure along, but there is much that she learns from recalling her bio-lab experiments, applying them with the latest developments in the unfolding story. With much to learn at the outset, Nausicaa’s bid to rid her world of tyranny and mass death will depend on courage and conviction, but also an open-minded curiosity. Nausicaa’s is a life-affirming tale that is ultimately an attack on sickly values of the past clinging to the present and spreading death to the lives lived now.
Nausicaa is Hayao Miyazaki’s first story and was his most painful to write. It took him 12 years on and off to finish the manga, struggling to find a path to take for the characters to fit into. The manga was wildly popular in Japan but, due to the success of his other movies, has been largely and unfortunately overlooked in America. The Nausicaa movie debuted in 1984 setting off a long movie career with Studio Ghibli that has made him famous around the world. But the Nausicaa manga, completed in the ten years that followed the movie’s release, contains such dense and profound ideas that are barely scratched in the movie, let alone his other movies. Certain questions became troubling to him upon hearing the environmentalist response to the movie and he couldn’t find the words to express them. In a telling interview he says:
“So, after the movie, I told myself that I would approach the problem more seriously to continue the manga, but once I started, there were so many things I couldn’t understand. From the beginning to the end, I ended up writing with a whole lot of things I couldn’t understand.”
The story started writing itself as Miyazaki brought himself to the limits of religious and conceptual problems he didn’t really want to get into. He didn’t feel adequately equipped to deal with them, but did feel compelled to continue the story and finish it with more depth than the movie could handle.
“(I was disgusted with) not only environmental problems, but also where humans were going. Mostly, the way Japan was. And I was most disgusted with the way I was at that time.”
This unplanned and scattered writing exercise in Nausicaa led Miyazaki into some very perplexing scenarios between mythological creatures and imagined technologies centered around the idea of life at scales large and small. The story is of such grandeur that religious concepts found their way in but without any dogma moving it forward besides the simple maxim that ’life is good and should thrive’. Life’s mutilation comes by way of ideas here – ideas belied by ancient technology, which, in this imagined future, are plaguing the individual lives struggling to thrive on a weakened planet. These ideas are relics of a past age that have crossed a vast historical distance and do the most to keep society subjugated as if under the spell of another world. The will to live is kept in check by the empires and their priests spreading needless death but also weakening the environment, further catalyzing death and despair.
Miyazaki’s reflections on the work will factor in later on, but let’s venture into the story first.
We are put on a continent controlled by two unfriendly empires (the theocratic Dorok Empire and the ruthless Torumekia Empire) warring over the remaining territories of a land besieged by ‘the sea of corruption’. The sea of corruption is actually a gigantic forest that humans cannot breathe inside of without masks due to a toxic mist called the ‘miasma’, and even then there are ill-tempered insects that will attack at the slightest provokation. The flora and fauna of these forests are drawn beautifully by Miyazaki and the biodiversity is staggering. The general human consensus is that these forests sprang up as a punishment to human corruption or for disobeying the teachings of the various religions we glimpse in the story. The doctrines of these peoples are mostly obstacles in Nausicaa’s quest and she will always judge their merit by their capacity to foster life and its prosperity. The priestly class reinforces the notion of original sin and human hubris to keep the populace fixated on the afterlife. Hope is directed outward and into the future to counter balance the despair felt in the present, but also to capture the minds of the masses and control territories for the respective empires. In the grips of a world on the brink of collapse, the religious teachings reflect the distress of the people and that distress makes them vulnerable to whatever will bring security and hope, no matter the oppression and death it brings along with it.
The original intuition of the elders from the valley of the wind and Nausicaa herself (thanks to her own personal bio-chemistry experiments) is that the forests are actually a response by the ecosystem to the acceleration of changes to the soil, climate, etc. from previous ages of rapid human industrial-technological production. They are thought to be a cleansing force of nature in a kind of quick response to the rise of technological innovation and resource exploitation from the ancient civilizations of old (or, the 20th century to today). The earth became a wasteland in a very short span as did the forests appear so suddenly, so they seem to be an ecological balancing response to the sudden change in the landscape of the earth. The sprawling activity of life in the forests lends to this hypothesis, as well as the different levels of the forest where matter is transformed from toxic for humans to breathable without masks, but by the end we are in a much more tangled web of nature-human-civilization inter-activity.
The forests are the home to giant hard-shelled worms called “Ohmus” which protect the forests. They attack entire cities and civilizations in a fit of rage during great events called the “daikaisho”, where the Ohmu corpses emit spores that eventually become the beginnings of a new forest or the colloquial ’sea of corruption’. Naturally, these Ohmus are feared by the people trying to eek out a living in the world that remains and the emperors play on those plebeian fears to further their imperial expansion. Nausicaa stands in stark contrast as a princess from an autonomous peripheral state that only wishes to survive near the forest without disturbing its ecosystem. She has a deep respect for the giant Ohmus of destruction, often attacking with a blind rage compared to them and even communicating with them telepathically. According to the initial intuition of Nausicaa and her adventurous companions she meets up with but always eventually departs from, the Ohmus fulfill a role of spreading the forest and annihilating human settlements in their path to rewrite the wrongs of human exploitation of resources for the sake of the greater planet’s well-being. As the legend goes, these purges have been happening for the past few thousand years, but people’s memories are short and they do not see the big picture while they continue to try and regrow their civilizations after each cyclical “daikaisho”. The Ohmus are then merely performing their age old part in the continual cleansing of the pure earth from the impure humans.
This world-view turns out to be wrong. But Nausicaa’s instinctual appreciation for all forms of life and grief for the death of all living beings beyond the respective purity or corruption of any particular living being puts her in a disposition essentially beyond good and evil or purity and corruption. Her care for all living things, to the point of joining the massing Ohmus on a campaign to sprout up another society-crushing forest, situates her in a favorable position (being a venerated princess helps too) to be an ecological mediator. The spectacular event of the daikaisho brings forth the most intensified spawning of life in this world, and Nausicaa’s intuition disposes her to merge with this outburst of biological migration. This is not done in the name of a grand “harmony” or “balance” of Nature; it is done in the name life. Life not in general or as a whole, but life in each particular instance of its assertion in struggle, mutation, and survival. She says of an especially powerful telepathic friend:
“But you have placed yourself within the flow of life… whereas I find myself involved with every individual living thing.” (V.3, 241)
Her compassion, which can only be called ecological, is pre-human (or post-human if you must) but very much involved with human affairs so as to fight the hegemonic royal families from leading the masses into slaughter. The power-lust of these death-defying, eternity obsessed rulers produces not just human suffering but massive and abrupt changes in the ecosystem which cause devastation to existing life-forms.
Taking up her quest in the name of all life regardless of the class or species will run Nausicaa up against the necessity of death and the cycles of destruction and rebirth, potentially thwarting the very purpose of her project. The goal of eradicting ancient values with a flavor of eternity and purism that are still clinging to civilization eventually emerges from Nausicaa’s love of all living things in their particularity. The specters of the past haunt the present by claiming to hold the technological key to a purified planet, without the hazardous forests or daikaishos, instilling a false hope and keeping people in the grips of dogmatism and empire.
Nausicaa’s adventure is one of war (she kills people in the heat of battle), but it is also one of education: she must learn the secrets of history from the different elders, priests, and monks she comes in contact with to understand the current situation. The wisdom she gains along the way is often at odds with her intuitions and she must decide what ancient teachings to absorb and which to resist. Nausicaa always begins with the immediacy of preserving life and stopping bloodshed, from there the complexities of death, nothingness, hope, and despair are consistently hurled at her by spirits and the preserved wisdom of the “holy ones”. The sentimental connection to every individual life is here not one argument among many but the vehicle moving Nausicaa into the middle of great conflicts as a sometimes warrior, sometimes mediator. As she learns about history and witnesses these great events, her baseline will to live is sharpened to detect the subtle resignations and resentments of the dated wisdoms plaguing humanity. Some of the passed on wisdom helps her understand the situation better and some must be casted off for being “covered in sarcomata and filth” (V.4, 248); so her intuition guides her in selecting the healthy lessons from the decrepit. The eventuality of death in all life is a persistent argument pushed on Nausicaa to get her to stop her quest, and how she deals with non-being, nothingness, and chaos is her mode of overcoming the master-ideas of the past making slaves out of the present (via a fixation on a pure future).
Now that we’re sufficiently primed for the heady (or, rather, heavy) weight of the themes and ideas in Nausicaa, we can get a bit more into the details of the story. This is such a good story that I feel like I need to retell it, giving pause for these profound ideas we so urgently need to sink in in our world.
In the ancient days of old, humanity flourished with technologies since lost to the current period. Suddenly “god-warriors” appeared and razed everything in what is commonly referred to as ’the seven days of fire’; in a sort of reversal of the seven days it took God to create the world in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This time it was to end it. The preface to the book reads:
“Plundering the soil of its riches, fouling the air, and remolding life-forms at its will, this gargantuan industrial society had already peaked one-thousand years after its foundation: ahead lay abrupt and violent decline… The complex and sophisticated technological superstructure was lost; almost all of the earth was transformed into a sterile wasteland. Industrial civilization was never rebuilt…”
After the seven days of fire the toxic forests emerged thwarting the attempts to rebuild a more complex civilization, repeatedly triggering the daikaisho that sends the Ohmus and other fearsome insects into human settlements expanding the forest. The war between the Doroks and the Torumekians is where we begin the story after three daikaisho tidal waves have already taken place (4X post-apocalypse!), and Nausicaa’s autonomous nation of the Valley of the Wind must go to war on the side of the Torumekians to honor a treaty. The great battles on the front never really go into full swing though, members of the Torumekian royal family are perpetually plotting against each other (the “viper’s den”) and the Doroks bring on environmental catastrophe in an attempt to harness the Ohmus rage as a weapon. This of course creates more problems for both sides, crippling their militaries and displacing most civilians. The Dorok scientists have conducted experiments growing their own mold and Ohmus artificially from the miasma. The proposed biological weapon soon grows out of control triggering another daikaisho bringing death and despair to all of the nations and cities. The scale of death is hard to overstate, the casualties the war would have inflicted are dwarfed by the mutated mold spreading out across the settled lands.
The insects of the forest sense the artificial mold’s threat to the planet and perform their “role” of eating it. This kills the insects along with the mold (they eat each other) as the two symbiotically form the beginnings of the next forest. Nausicaa laments the death of the insects wondering why they have to die to pay for the folly of human bio-chemical meddling. Since the mold was grown by the human Doroks, she believes that the insects are sacrificing themselves to stop the out-of-control experiment from contaminating the Earth. In her grief, Nausicaa is led to believe (by a demon of nothingness no less) that this big scene was preordained by greater forces to cleanse the Earth in the purposefully recurring cycle of the daikaisho. The figure of the corpse demon speaks to Nausicaa of the necessity of death and the futility of becoming attached to a particular life that will die someday anyways. The dark thoughts that bear down on Nausicaa are of the seemingly inevitable death of great creatures at the service of a cursed humanity. The sacrifice is not being shared equally.
Her guilt over the sacrifice of the Ohmu for her own species’ impurity is intensified by her commitment to all living things. As a human she feels partially responsible for the fate of the Ohmus, after all, they died to protect the Earth from the wildly mutating mold – the brash technological manipulation of bio-weapons. But it is the thought of the necessity of such acts and the necessity of a purging force that sends her into despair: is human sin forever in need of a cleansing sacrifice from other more beautiful creatures? Is the unending cycle of death and violence a fact of human nature whose effects on the planet and other beings can only be mitigated by Malthusian catastrophes?
An alternative interpretation does not come around for a few hundred pages, and Nausicaa, under the spell of the demon of nothingness and despair, plunges herself into the charge of the Ohmus to become a part of the renewal process. Luckily she is preserved and uncovered by her friends, or else the purity-corruption paradigm would persist and the end of her story would be a Christ-like sacrifice! Instead we are treated to some trippy dream sequences on the edge of the abyss, a vibrant, breathable miasma forest, and even catching a glimpse of the way the world “should” be (as it was in the days before the seven days of fire). After a long talk, she decides to come back and resume her journey. The clincher comes when looking at the ’pure world’ but then retreating from it: she knows that it would become corrupted all the same if it was inhabited.
“How wonderful it would be to live here with everyone, free of the miasma. But if people found out now, they would begin to believe that they are the masters of the world. They would eat up this newly born, fragile land and do the same thing all over again. In a thousand years or more, you’ll spread and grow. And if we can survive, become a little smarter, then maybe we can come join you here.” (V.3 near the end)
What she rejects is the ’quick fix’: no distant land is going to save us and no single event can purify us. Both world and humanity, when either is seen as strictly pure or corrupt, lead us into a kind of vicious circle where the sins of people need to be corrected in a pure world, and when a world becomes foul from the contact with the immortals a sweeping destruction is all that can fix it. The playing out of the humans-world distinction logically with absolute valuations (good/evil) brings us into a kind of nihilistic despair: the cycles, loops, and pulses of life start to look like a contamination, a parasite, a disease. As humanity pushes the boundaries beyond the limits of its world, the disparity takes on a moral standard where disproportionate growth necessitates repentance and shame. This standard polarizes the relationship world/humanity into one of a struggle where when one gains the other must lose. Can such a problem be avoided with coexistence of the two, or is it by virtue of the split into world/human that such a will to dominate arises?
Life always evolves in relation and with respect to its food source, explorable geography and terrain, energy inputs, and long history of evolution. An acceleration of growth, a surge of technological creativity in an isolated species will become proud and treat itself as the center of the world. A firm place of certitude is asserted and a supreme confidence makes one an exemplar: human concern becomes the center of the universe. From this place of positivity, the ergo sum – “therefore I am”, of Descartes, everything else can be clumped into, well, everything else: the world. Preserving the supreme importance of humanity and the individual while technological progress spikes ends up limiting the engagement people could have with other non-human beings. Marveling at our own accomplishments tends to limit our relatability to other forms of life and the processes from which we came as well as live alongside presently. The growth of one class or one species in isolation will look like the spreading of a contagion across a map made to represent the world. The world will look like an empty space to be filled by the imperial expansion of an individual force covering it over. Worlds labeled either good or bad, here or there, past, present, or future are in congruence with a will to dominate. ’The World’ and ’Nature’ can surely be invoked to inspire this being-with quality of life, but the almost universally overlooked effect of setting up an omnipresent whole is in the contrasting observant subject. A cosmic-mystical convolution involving a play of ’within-outside’ between man and Nature ensues. These matters of belief and existence warrant much more detail. For now let’s continue along like Miyazaki: unsure where the journey will take us but with a committed sense that something is very wrong with the wanton slaughter and extinction of lives and life-forms.
Somewhere in-between an ecological improvement of humanity and an acceptance of the Earths limits lies Nausicaa’s newfound sensibility: a world, the planet cannot be mastered. Progress necessarily comes via integration, not domination. This is the ecological ethos problematizing the conception of world as an empty background on which to populate, occupy, colonize. Even the impulse to conquer and subsume itself fits into a scheme of checks and balances involving other entities and impulses colliding, resisting, or swerving themselves. The difficult task is to identify which impulses and their modes promote life and which degenerate. Life proceeds by its own volition, neither pure nor corrupt and from neither inside nor outside the world. In one of the more mystical lines of the story, Nausicaa says: “Every life-form, no matter how small, contains the outside universe within its internal universe”, (V.4, 181) making havoc on our security of inner self and problematizing the world as a thing outside us.
Setting her sights on the two crippled empires still trying to battle it out for supremacy after the daikaisho, Nausicaa embarks again to convince the Doroks not to invade Torumekia. She flies off on her glider-jet which allows for her to travel alone riding the wind even as she has been gaining quite the following. A tribe of people have begun calling her their goddess and doing whatever she asks of them! A similar thing happens when she confronts the Dorok emperor and learns of the secret weapon they have been incubating: the god-warrior. A remnant from the initial seven days of fire that enflamed the world and destroyed the advanced technological civilization, the god-warrior has massively destructive powers. It wakes up to Nausicaa battling the Dorok emperor on an airship and promptly believes her to be his mother. She seems to have this infectious influence on everything and her reputation is starting grow as a savior. With the emperor dead with partial thanks to a coup d’état, the Dorok people come to believe Nausicaa to be there new great leader who will show them the way to the promised land and away from this land of suffering.
Miyazaki here expressed his own feeling of being propped up as a intellectual-spiritual leader especially by the environmentalists after gaining immense fame across Japan:
“If we take the (existence of) god as a premise, we can explain the world by that. But I can’t do that. And yet, I stepped into the area I didn’t want to get into, such as humans and life.
I can manage to understand the world as conflicts and contradictions among humans, but I find myself not being satisfied with that level (of explanation).
Then I have nothing I can say with confidence.
My head gets dizzy by just thinking what would you do if you are called “mama” by a God Warrior with such a destructive power. So, Nausicaa’s perplexity is just my own perplexity.”
After much success, Miyazaki still felt obliged to continue the story of Nausicaa, but he had written himself into a corner. The simple but pervasive environmentalist interpretation of harmony with corrupt(able) humans and sacred nature which many took home from the Nausicaa movie did not satisfy him, so he continued the story along lines he could not plan ahead of. The religious undertones in the story were unexplored territory but seemed the only way to explain the difficulties confronting so many displaced and routinely repressed people now functioning without their royal head of state. So suddenly Nausicaa is an icon of hope that is expected to lead the people to prosperity. She is treated as a holy leader but has little concern for religion herself, she merely wants to put an end to the war and death threatening human societies but also the Earth and its ability to produce life. This lead Miyazaki into the treacherous land of religion, but insofar as life can be considered sacred without doctrine, he treats religion in a negative way, as an impediment to life and its flourishing.
The life-affirming ethos of Nausicaa can easily be misinterpreted as a crusade gaining followers, and Miyazaki wrote this into the story. The basic will to live that Miyazaki is trying to express can be obscured and deified by falling into religious traps of puritanical values or in the divine right of persistent rulership. In elevating a value into eternity, the immortalization of an ethical commitment, we are led astray, but not without leaving a detrimental footprint on the “impure world of appearances” during lift-off. These desires for transcendence can come right back down into the grounded things of phenomenal experience, but then things get really confusing:
“Many things in a human’s mind which are said to be meaningful, you might call them attributes such as various thoughts or beliefs, I think they might actually exist in nature…
We get confused because we get various worldly desires. But I’m afraid that I feel if we want to go beyond such desires and go somewhere pure, we might reach somewhere such as an ordinary stone or water drops. But in the moment we put these kinds of thoughts into words, everything becomes a disreputable religion. I can not possibly write (these kinds of thoughts), I haven’t reached such a stage or anything…”
Not having achieved a high enough stage is I think a blessing rather than a curse when considering the result of Miyazaki’s labors in the Nausicaa storyline. Struggling mightily with concepts life, humans, and god in a fantasy world without “enlightenment” has given us a tale of ecological appreciation with cautionary note on its possible dogmatic capture. Going beyond worldly desires, transcending the ordinary, and reaching out to the pure leads (as an uncomfortable Miyazaki reminds us) right back to the objects we act with – the things that both compose us and are all around us. Communicating these paradoxical thoughts between each other always runs the risk of establishing a hierarchy of belief where super-worldly values create subjects out of lives. So the last parts of Nausicaa go into some very foreign territory that must pay very close attention to the shadows of life: death and nihilism.
Rejecting both the all powerful god and the human conflict explanations of history, Miyazaki/Nausicaa is left with a strange hybrid ’god-warrior’ obeying his/her every command wreaking havoc when not attended to. A perplexing problem indeed.
Moreover, this god-warrior is a representation of what becomes Nausicaa’s next self-appointed task: eliminating technologies, accompanied by their out-dated values, that do not belong in this world. Wielding a fire-power unseen for thousands of years she now travels off to the Dorok capital of Shuwa where a single “crypt” stores the technologies of the ancients. The crypt is guarded and preserved by loyal servants who hold it as the last shining hope to recreate the world as it once was in its grandeur; an idealized past free of suffering that will come back so long as its technologies are kept hidden from danger, sealed away and waiting for the perfect moment. The god-warrior itself is of that lost world still lingering on and trying to control the course of history. Nausicaa being the warm life-lover she is bonds with her giant monster-child, awakening in him his role as an “arbitrator”. They will fly off to Shuwa city and the crypt to bury these trans-world technologies and “return them to the darkness from which they came.”
Nausicaa takes two trips inside the crypt, but the first is a mirage paradise land housing all of the things worth preserving from the old world: art, science, philosophy, and all of the splendors humans created in the days before the seven days of fire. Here she squares off with an eternal, shape-shifting machine being (a “heedra”) of the old world in a sort of dialogue battle. This creature lords over the plantation equipped with servants and workers, convinced that this place must be maintained for the sake of all things humanly good. The cunning heedra nearly breaks Nausicaa’s conviction, using an argument regarding the purity-pollution of worlds and/or people to convince her to give up. It says:
“Everyone believes they alone will not err. Yet none can escape from the cycle wherein karma gives birth to karma, sorrow to sorrow. This garden is a place where all chains can be severed.”
This purified zone, where all the greatest achievements of mankind are stored is outside of the unceasing cycle of violence. The heedra makes the case that since the humans currently inhabiting the planet cannot tolerate the purity of this zone, having become accustomed to the toxic world with its miasma forests and daikaisho, any plan of Nausicaa’s to will fail for the uncorrectable flaws of human exposure to the polluted world. The fatalistic notion of the cyclical repetition of history within in the binaries of good and evil is used as a weapon to deter her, but in a flash of insight she says: “Tell me more!! I’ve always felt that we blind ourselves by looking at the world simply in terms of “purity” and “corruption.”” It is in the middle of this battle of wits that she comes to realize the most vital piece of the historical puzzle: the forests (seas of corruption) are neither a punishment from god nor a environmental response to the fouling of the planet but a synthetic creation of scientists from the old world. In the grips of despair and near extinction, scientists tampered with organisms to spawn the rapid-growth forests in a bid to replenish the earth and recreate human civilization as it once was. They fitted out people and the other animals to endure the toxic air as well, allowing for a transitional period from which a new world purified from the toxicity by the artificial forests could develop. In the grips of despair at the future prospects for humanity, the grand plan of the ancients was to remake their own world, which they knew was becoming fouled, with the artificial ecosystem of the miasma forests. It’s a more rapid way of transitioning from the undesired (corrupt) state to the pure one by meticulous intervention in the ecosystem to give those people hope for the future.
Nausicaa will reject this project for its purism; going farther than disagreement and choosing to fight back. The ancients have tampered with the future and bought along with them their values no longer fit for the present. That these lives have been artificially manipulated by ancients does not make them any less precious, but they must be able to exist autonomously and by their own volition. Nausicaa says on p.181-2 (V.4): “Our lives are like the wind… or like sounds. We came into being, resonate with each other… then fade away… A life is a life, regardless of how it comes into being.” The designs of the past, the traditional goals and purpose-generating projects might outlive their world and obscure the tasks of those living. Life must be allowed to die for its next evolution to flourish. A way of life that crystalizes, preserving itself in the purity of eternity (thereby breaching the life-death evolutionary cycle and persisting unchanged through history) will inevitably go against life – resisting change, it will shed the biological need to adapt. The hope that made the old world bearable can be a source of death and despair in this world when their conditions contrast so greatly.
Setting her sights on the container of the ancient technology spewing out, Nausicaa brings the god-warrior to the crypt who blasts a hole open for her. Inside she speaks with the voices of the ancients through the “holy text” that entire lineages of clerics spend deciphering and guarding. In one of the greatest dialogues ever written, Miyazaki lays it all out. Nausicaa’s debate-battle with the crypt stands out in my mind as one of the greatest elucidations of the problem of the value of civilization/humanity and its implications for an ecological ethos. The crypt comes out in the form of a crowd of holographic people who speak of “purification”, “atonement”, and “despair”. They ask for the continued preservation of their crypt with its ancient knowledge and technology until the world becomes “pure” enough for them to live in. Nausicaa shuts off their illusion with a loud “NAY!” (bold). “Why!?” she goes on,
“Because no matter how much knowledge and technology you have, you will still need slaves to do the work for you the morning you replace the world!?
Our bodies may have been artificially transformed, but our lives will always be our own! Life survives by the power of life…
To live is to change… But you[emphasis] cannot change You have only the plan that was built into you. Because you deny death.” (V.4, p.246)
The crypt then takes its counter-shot. It possesses the body of a fool (tagging along with the emperor of Torumekia) and paints a grave picture of the ancient time when the planet was being polluted:
“Poisoned air. Punishing sunlight. Parched earth. New illnesses coming into being every day. Death was everywhere… We decided to trust everything to the future.”
“I do not doubt,” replies Nausicaa,
“that you were created out of idealism and a sense of purpose in an age of despair. Why didn’t those men realize that both purity and corruption are the very stuff of life? Suffering and tragedy and folly will not disappear in a purified world. They are a part of humanity… Because you were created as an artificial god of purity, you have become the ugliest creature of all, never knowing what it means to be alive.” (V.4, p.247)
The crypt that represents the ancient civilization in its splendor brought all of its religions sprouting up in that desperate time – when the world was seemingly attacking humanity and driving it to extinction – into one place, under one plan. To give themselves hope, they took everything most valued and formed the crypt while bio-engineering all the animals to withstand the pollution until their pure world returned after the miasma forests fulfilled their role. On the brink of collapse, humanity saved itself by scientifically manipulating the organisms and the ecosystem. Nausicaa does not feel hatred for that gasp for survival, the people then were merely doing what they must do to continue living into the future; the problem is that the values of this civilization, this desire for hope was born out of a time of despair that tainted it. Their desire grasped onto survival and, with the help of the technological advances of that era, they did survive in a cocoon. But the desperation traveled along with them, closed off from the environment and the integration that would have altered the people’s disposition. The values and temperament of those people were sealed away in the crypt along with all of the stored knowledge of science, art, and philosophy and could not undergo any change, which, as Nausicaa reminds us, is necessary for life. The over-valuation of hope and a focus on a ideal picture of the future became solidified and static: like a corpse on life-support staying alive until heaven is realized on Earth.
This trans-world ’valuation’ as I have been broadly calling it, along with some technologies has seeped out of the crypt and has been put into use by the Dorok empire as a means to keep the royal family alive indefinitely and pacify the populace. Nausicaa breaks the curse by sicing the god-warrior on the crypt and ends its dream of rebuilding the world according to the wishes of the ancients (who, to remind you, are really more like us in the 21st century). From now on, humanity will have to manage its own survival in a hostile world without the assurance of the ancient’s carefully crafted plan controlling the environment. But does this seal humanity’s fate to extinction?
The crypt responds to Nausicaa with a stern and fearsome “you cannot escape the hardening disease. You have no future. Without me, humanity will surely become extinct.” To which Nausicaa replies: “That is for the planet to decide.” This is a conundrum from Miyazaki that is worth a long pause, where does the ultimate value of life reside: the species, the singular living body, or the planet it evolved on? Will it ever come to this demanding choice or is the question wrong? We humans evolved into this species and became so through conditions allowing for reproductive isolation, one mode of life branched off and held together. But would it be against life to not do everything in our power to continue our existence? Even if that existence required life-denying purism that blocks change (and so a necessary force of life itself: mutation) and a relationship to things ecologically, alive or otherwise? Just how vital is preservation when life cannot actualize its potential in struggle, joy, and flux?
Nausicaa leaves the fate of humans up to the planet in the name of the lives living now, in the present, vs. the certitude of keeping humanity alive indefinitely – into the future. The crypt repsponds in bold: “That is nihilism!! Nothingness!!” Nausicaa affirms again the oft repeated statement in the story: “All things are born from darkness and all things return to darkness” (V.4, p.249-250). Death being essential to life is the paradox that the ancients tried to overcome in creating the crypt. They sought to extend the light that is the life of humanity forever and not lose the great accomplishments compiled over their generations. Nausicaa is seen by them as a nihilist for actively destroying such feats of civilization. It’s not that she doesn’t care about anything, or that she believes that their is no meaningful anchor to existence; Nausicaa sentiment is misunderstood by focusing only on her willingness to destroy. She most definitely has an ethics but not a human morality (interpreting people, their souls, or the world as essentially good or bad): her belief is in the preciousness of life – the will-to-live in every instance.
This ethics of life goes beyond humans and their societies but does not exclude them. A foreign belief that flies in the face of received wisdom will appear to the devout as a cancer, a terror, evil – a dangerous nothingness. But there comes a time to think bigger, Nausicaa has merely broadened the scope. Humans and their preserved history should not survive at all costs, rearranging and “enhancing” the world to fit their needs or “progressing” into societies more ideal than before. In this self-congratulatory, narrow-mindedness, we could be changing the planet – the biosphere – into a place where life can no longer thrive, where living things do not excel and relate with one another in an ecosystem but are pulled along by mechanisms extraneous to life. The maxim repeated throughout Nausicaa forming the bedrock of its ethical statement is “life survives by the power of life”, or, life is essentially self-generating. All living beings are born and all living things die and this inescapable death, the riskiness of living, must be affirmed – lest one being in its unchecked expansion ruin it for the rest.
Nausicaa’s personality is quite contagious. Nearly everyone she comes into contact with begins to adopt her advice and admire her will. By the end of the series, she is communicating telepathically with the masses of dispossessed people as she flies over them alone in her wind-riding jet-glider. She speaks for something common to us all but going beyond us as well; a beyond that does not eternalize or transcend life but a striving-beyond that recognizes the limits death and nothingness give it. Life is a good thing and should fly as far as it can in the fullness of its endeavoring, but it must be by its own power autonomously. There is no contradiction in being of an ecosystem respectfully and proceeding under one’s own power: not when one’s finitude is a precondition for one’s excellence and other lives may continue under their own power.
We are all living creatures born of the raw materials of the planet and organized by certain processes that we only are beginning to understand. Though science, Philosophy, and Art are in a sense pinnacles of human achievement, Nausicaa’s intuition for life is accessible to anyone and everyone so long as they are alive.
Though I tried to write this piece without a definitive plan as Miyazaki wrote Nauiscaa, certain influences where crucial to forming this interpretation:
Nietzsche’s reevaluation of all values, especially Deleuze’s commentary in ’Nietzsche and Philosophy’
James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory
Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers’ ’Order Out of Chaos’
I used the Viz Communications four volume publication of Hayao Miyazaki’s ’Nausicaa: Of the Valley of the Wind’, Perfect Collection.
Here is the interview that Miyazaki did with Yom.