Recognizable prototypes of popular science writing probably go back at least to Faraday’s Chemical History of a Candle lectures, and includes well-regarded writings by George Gamow and James Jeans in the ’30s, but the genre as we know it probably begins with the explosive popularity in the ’80s of such titles as Sagan’s Cosmos or Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. These were clearly written with a spirit of exposition first and foremost, aiming to make already well-established scientific concepts clearer to laymen. Notably, flights of imagination, while invaluable for catching the reader’s attention and making those concepts easier to digest, were clearly marked and placed in the service of the science being outlined.
But science writing isn’t what it used to be. No longer content to serve as a tool of explanation or introduction between professional science and the rest of society, one finds an increasing trend in such writings towards conflating pure fantasy or wildly unsupported theories on the one hand, with oddly sensationalized re-hash of facts (if not minutae) that have been written about elsewhere countless times, on the other.
In this fashionable hyper-speculative mode, empty and meaningless claims are dressed up as great revelations, demanding our awe (both to science and to the deep mind of the writer) as a kind of supreme tribute. At the same time, we are to constantly keep in mind that even though these revelations are incredible and really wondrous and merit our uncritical admiration, they are also perfectly predictable consequences of any sufficiently rigorous and hard-headed thought process, and in this way are inevitable and even mediocre. In this way, the writer maintains a nominal commitment to rationalism and scientific orthodoxy. We are constantly to be in awe, all while reminding ourselves that everything is quite sensible and certainly no cause for mystical invocations.
The result is a bizarre waffling between the poles of astonishment and smug domestication or, if these are taken all at once, a double-bind oddly reminiscent either of Orwell’s Doublethink or of certain religious tenets where the swallowing of a contradiction (such as “God is One but he is also Three”) is a necessary testament of one’s faith. This contrived emotional reaction, where the feelings of religious mystery or philosophical puzzlement are evoked in order to glorify the ostensibly rationalistic triumph of current scientific thinking, has come to dominate so many forms of popular science writing and exegesis.
I propose to call it “nihilistic awe”–for it is literally awe based on nothing, awe conjured up for the usefulness of that feeling alone. It is distinct from the awe one may feel at any great discovery about the world, or at the working-out of successful scientific theories, for while these types of experiences drive many scientists to pursue their field, they are based on honest approaches to objective truth and moreover, far from being created specifically for the occasion, are often quite accidental. Nihilistic awe, on the other hand, is distinguished by its two-fold nature: exaggerated or speculative claims on the one hand, with a distinct subtext that “thou shalt be amazed”, combined with an often ad-hoc rationalization that aims to place all such feelings under the firm control of conventional scientific concepts.
Put in the terms of Heidegger’s essay “The Thing”, in nihilistic awe we are first invited us to approach the “thing qua thing”–this is the awe part–but then shunts this awe into an act of objectification through abstract representation, by creating what Heidegger terms the “over-againstness” of the object. We are put in a mode of thought primed for appreciation of the universe or the creation or the radical strangeness of things in their existence, but this mode is then diverted, and subtly appropriated for the sake of a scientific triumphalism where “everything is present as an object of making” and “gets lumped together into uniform distancelessness”–a mindset whose first inception Heidegger interestingly identifies not in the scientific revolutions of the Enlightenment, but as far back as the works of Plato.
That these two attitudes are incompatible as oil and water, and that in particular the process of objectification and representation, obscures the appreciation of the thing-as-thing, shows the very emptiness of nihilistic awe: for even if the images, statements or stories initially used to conjure the awe of the reader are completely truthful and worthy of awe, the experience is immediately flattened by the following ad-hoc process of jamming it into alignment with scientific orthodoxy. As Heidegger puts it, “Science always encounters only what its kind of representation has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science”.
The move towards nihilistic awe in many forms of expository writing may have a number of causes. It might, for instance, be taken as simply a pedagogic conceit. In Thomas Kuhn’s view, textbooks of science often gloss over and even reverse the true historical development of scientific theories in the interest of telling a more coherent, triumphal story. This is no terrible wrong, Kuhn suggests, since for the promotion of science (as for any other great human endeavor) what is needed is not a dry story of bumbling errors and unpleasant characters who as often backed into a new model as derived it clear-sightedly, but a pantheon of heroes and startling breakthroughs that (insofar as scientists need to know about the history of science at all) is logical and easy to remember. The overriding goals are to inspire young people to throw their lots in with the scientific professions, and also to give cohesion to the narrative of Progress, with which scientists and science are so vitally associated.
Yet nihilistic awe hardly seems necessary for teaching new scientists how to do science, nor, given its extremely speculative and fact-sparse nature, is it particularly effective in doing so. In previous decades, when popular science writing was more constrained and straightforward in its intentions (whatever its other flaws), or when the writing of scientific books was a much more significant part of communication within the scientific community itself, the effect was just as rich if not more so: many of the discoveries of those times, let us say pre-1980s, were of a magnitude and breadth that has scarcely been equalled since, despite the exponential growth in the sciences in terms of funding, publication rate, and degrees conferred. If there has been any pedagogic effect, then, it has been to decrease the effectiveness of science.
Propagandistic motives surely also come into play in the rise of nihilistic awe. As the “culture wars” have continued throughout the US and across the world, there is an ongoing need for scientists and associated professions to rally around the idea of Progress–to uphold the “ideals of the Enlightenment” and so forth against a perceived reactionism in the general public, and lawmakers. At the root of this reaction, in addition to the old resistance by religious hard-liners, there now is a growing broader sense that science has let us down: for though we continue to see piecemeal improvements and interesting new entertainments and distractions, we are still quite clearly left with the old human problems of sickness, death, tribalism, inequality, and corruption, along with newer ones such as environmental degradation and social atomization. It is no longer even clear that science is “winning” the victories that were once expected of it, though those expectations were admittedly promoted more often by entrepreneurs and other power-brokers who stood to gain by them than by scientists themselves.
Certainly school board decisions concerning the teaching of intelligent design, or the vast and perhaps growing scientific illiteracy of the population, as well as the ever-growing recalcitrance of lawmakers towards increases in scientific funding, have put science on its guard as well, and no doubt adds to the pressure to “fight fire with fire” in the world of public opinion by reaching for the language of religiousity. But for centuries before our current time, there has been a battle between secular intellectualism and religious traditionalism, which did not inspire mainstream scientific writing to routinely adopt such bizarrely mystical trappings. Thus, propagandism can only be part of the issue in the rise of nihilistic awe.
There are also economic values to consider. Besides the importance securing public support for the funding of science, as just mentioned, it is certainly true that the size of the prize has grown, as more and more writers (increasingly, unsuccessful scientists) have cast their lots in with scientific writing and as the number of best-selling titles and authors has also increased. Yet, as I mentioned, there has also been a trend from the latter 20th century that newer discoveries in science seem to be less dramatic, less fundamental, than what came before, though they are lauded if anything more highly–the Nobel Prize awarded for “blue LEDs” a few years back, for example. Popular books abound on the “science” of the minutest subjects now, ranging from the history of distilled liquors to the history of the number zero to the umpteenth re-telling of the story of a single favorite chemical element.
Without a doubt, some of the innate appeal of these works can be found in the “snob value”, whereby bien pensant readers may discover new edifying proof of their intellectual cultivation. Still, the implicit egotistical or social status value of reading “smart” books must pale when faced with the glum trend towards ever-more-arcane minutiae and ever-dowdier re-hash. With the need to continue to compel readers and bring in sales, then, it is not surprising that sensationalism would take an ever firmer hold of the content of “scientific” books. But this need to maintain shock value is bound to run up against science’s emphasis on objectivity and unity of knowledge: the world is consistent and only is a certain way, and once that way is described to a certain degree of precision there is less and less thrill, especially for non-professionals, in adding in more and more recondite details. In short, the truth grows so specialized that it sticks in the craw of even the most brazenly sensationalist writer, and sensationalism alone ceases to do the job.
Something beyond this is needed, then, if only to keep the royalties flowing. The language of awe, cosmic purposes, ultimate ends, and supreme Answers is just the thing, as it concerns itself not merely with interesting (if exaggerated) objects that stand over and against us as mere ideas, but the encounter with things qua things; it is precisely what modern man, in his secular, technocratic and bureaucratic detachment, quietly pines for and obsesses over. A sighting of a new particle, or an anomaly in the distribution of space dust, or speculations on the evolution of language (or any other human activity imaginable), can now not only be expressed in overblown terms, but with ecstatic and revelatory airs that attack the pleasure centers of belief. Of course it then becomes necessary to preserve the nominal connection with “science”, to weld this form of liberation to the old yoke–to confine the effect to that which science “has admitted beforehand as an object possible for science”. The fire of the ecstatic, once conjured up, must be frozen solid.
But while nihilistic awe may be worthwhile from an economic point of view as a sop for the confused souls, abundant in our time, who both wholly accept science as a salvation yet bemoan the emptiness its manner of thought creates (without connecting the two), there is surely more to the phenomenon than that. It’s hard to believe that every editorial decision made by even the most shameless popular science author is wholly due to such cool calculation. In fact many of them must be true believers, who honestly derive from their own experiences with science that very awe they wish to convey–yet they will then be driven by their prior ideological commitments to rationalize that emotion, to fit it within the framework of theory and idea.
At what point does this attitude become scientism, which may be described best as “religiosity by other means”? Different authors negotiate the territory differently, but there are abundant examples that the line is now routinely crossed. Sagan already trod perilously close–while the “New Atheists”, with their fervid rejection of traditional religion and equally fervid embrace of standard scientific materialism, show a willfully dogmatic, if not religious bent. Popularizer-scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, and Brian Greene offer at turns rapturous tales of a destiny in space, spectacular phase-changes in consciousness through technology, limitless wonders and magic through soon-to-appear innovations, or a realm beyond all perception (or experimental detection) in which higher dimensions and vibrating strings act out inexplicable yet “beautiful” eternal principles.
The list seems endless. For a creation myth, one turn to such titles as Krauss’s “A Universe From Nothing” (while ignoring the glaring philosophical gaps pointed out in this review). For those who seek the classic religious refuge of alternate planes of existence, at once rarified and distant yet subtly near–all with the sanction of science–a simple Amazon search for “multiverse” provides a rich display of examples, including such recent delicacies as Christophe Galfard’s “The Universe in Your Hand”, which culminates in what one reader described as “some sort of rather incomprehensible voyage with a robot to the string theory multiverse”, and Greene’s “The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos”. All the trappings of “religiosity by other means” are available, in other words, except that in the end they must be welded uncomfortably to assertions that they are all somehow “true” or at least fit within the bounds of scientific objectivity.
* * *
A prime example of the merchants of nihilistic awe is Caleb Scharf, director of the Astrobiology Center at Columbia and self-described “science evangelist“, whose popular book “Copernicus Complex” I cracked open several months ago. Aside from the first half or so, which at least contains some passable expository writing, on the history and science of astronomy and astrobiology–albeit mostly in the typical mode of re-hash previously mentioned–”The Copernicus Complex” fits the bread-and-butter pattern of conjuring nihilistic awe through and through. Much in the same way that the book’s eponymous “complex” is never actually defined or described anywhere, the book is studded with bizarrely inconclusive or vacuous statements dressed up as cosmic truths or finely wrought aphorisms, regularly conjuring questions about humanity’s “significance” without addressing in any way what significance is. We come again and again upon pseudo-deep questions such as, “do we want to remain special but insignificant?” .
But in the usual pattern, Scharf’s oddly floating exhortations to wonder are immediately defused with sometimes breathtakingly hubristic yet unsupported assertions of rational certitude, like when he declares “…the mechanics of life are an unsurprising extension of what we know about the universe”  The source of Scharf’s awe, it seems, is to be that there is nothing to be awed about. Nothing to see here, but thanks for your amazement; triumphalism is wrung from inconclusiveness.
Scharf’s recent article for Aeon, “Where Do Minds Belong?” is much the same in many ways, however it provides a much more compact and clear exemplar of the tools of nihilistic awe at work (and Aeon itself has largely given itself completely to this mode of writing). It demonstrates some of the worst of the worst, pointing a truly dubious way forward for scientific writing and thought. Much of it is spent arguing imaginary points in the name of an imaginary consensus, while at the same time taking pride in an alleged nonconformism.
“Where Do Minds Belong?” is based on twin unfounded speculations: first, that over time, consciousness will first transfer itself into computers; second, that for some reason or other, machine consciousness will later decide to return to biological form. Note that there is already an inconsistency underlying this premise: for is it not the standard position of Singularitarians and other arch-reductionists that biological organisms are already nothing other than machines? If so, then by embracing the dichotomy between the two as the basis of his discourse, Scharf seems to be implying that biological organisms are essentially not machines. Yet if they are not–if there is something about them that we cannot reduce to calculation and mechanism–then how can we expect them to be replaced by machines? The whole discussion turns out to be self-refuting–an excellent example of the fashionable, say-nothing grandiosity of popular scientism.
Early in the essay, Scharf contends that
“any intelligent life we encounter in the rest of the Universe is more likely to be machine-based, rather than humanoid meat-bags such as ourselves.“
This statement is certainly awe-evoking; yet like much of what is to follow, it has no basis in any observation or any reputable argument. It does, however, immediately put the awe in subordination to mechanism, with its implicit assertion that, far from life as we know it being singular or inexplicable, it is in fact just a less-convenient way for life to exist, as compared to purely mechanical forms.
Of note here is the doctrine of the biological inferiority complex, as embodied by the Singularitarians and many other current writers and futurists who posit machine incarnation as the manifest destiny of humanity. In this vein, describing people as “meat-bags” or “moist robots” is a particularly fashionable type of locution, meant to display the speaker’s confident faith in reductionist materialism–and hence their intellectual seriousness–through their eagerness to dismiss conscious beings as automata or mere gatherings of organs. It is “over-againstness” writ large, and now the objectification is directed not just at the world but at ourselves.
To a normal individual, this will surely seem wanton, arrogant, and disturbing–but it is all in the manner of a compliment in the minds of our astute Aeon readers. Continuing in the biological inferiority complex, Scharf then supplies more than was asked for:
“Our notions about the emergence of intelligent machines expose our fantasies (often unspoken) about what perfection is: not soft and biological, like our current selves, but hard, digital and almost inconceivably powerful.“
Who is he arguing against here? Whose fantasies are these? What is this consensus he is claiming where in fact there is none? What is the criterion of superiority he is invoking? (Many of us, I suspect, vastly prefer people “soft and biological”.)
As if to underline his thin grasp of the line between real knowledge and euphoric speculation, Scharf next declares the reasoning on machine intelligence virtually settled, then immediately makes a hugely idiotic leap, common in contemporary predictions of an AI takeover, of reasoning by extrapolating the present indefinitely far into the future.
“…the logic behind the conjectures about cosmic machine intelligence appears pretty solid. Extrapolating the trajectory of our own current technological evolution…“
This sets him up to formulate a grandiose question (another favored tactic for awe-mining):
“is biological intelligence really a universal dead-end, destined to give way to machine supremacy?“
It is hard to imagine a more utterly loaded question to begin with. Who’s really assuming all this, or seriously worrying about it, besides a handful of highly eccentric technocratic would-be visionaries? Note also how the nihilism hits home in this image: we are all doomed, our selves as we know them are nothing, we are a road-block on the way to progress, etc., etc., and Science has decreed it to be so. However, Scharf’s answer is “perhaps not”:
“It is far from clear that current computational technology is leading us to the singularity, or any grandiose moment of exponential transcendence as a species.“
His manner of consolation leaves much to be desired however:
“we could be heading for a hive-mind state, a collective organism more akin to a termite colony or a set of squirmy naked mole-rats. Rather than increasing our intelligence, we might actually be throttling the raw inputs, training ourselves to be increasingly passive.“
Here we have more fun speculation, with no evidence or argument, but tenaciously holding to the image of man-as-object, completely commensurable with termites or mole-rats.
There are also some simple falsehoods:
“the computations-per-joule ratio has been getting better and better with each passing year.“
This is untrue, as Dennard scaling–the decrease in power consumption by chip features in proportion to the decreasing area of those features–broke down around 2006. Scharf later admits this:
“some researchers have stated that there might be an upcoming ‘wall’ of energy efficiency for conventional processing architectures, somewhere around 10 giga-computations-per-joule for operations such as basic multiplication.
That’s a big potential roadblock for any quest for true artificial intelligence or brain-uploading machinery.“
Here he is being humbler, standing against the techno-Rapturists, though still wearing their colors.
The astonishing efficiency of the human brain (20W to run the whole thing) gets a strong nod from Scharf, and he rightly notes that this is strong evidence that re-creating minds on silicon would be prohibitively energy intensive.
“I think that there is cause for a more measured response to the optimistic predictions of human-level AI. […] although the machinery to sustain intelligence comparable to, or exceeding, human intelligence might be possible to construct, it might not enable the kind of exponential computing growth that is often proposed.“
He follows this sensible observation with something that makes no sense:
“the mathematics of exponentially improving machine intelligence could be sound, and yet the practical barriers could prove insurmountably steep.“
This seems to come down to the reasonable but also vacuous observation that though sustained exponential improvement may be imaginable, that does not mean it is possible. The idea of exponential growth indeed dies hard, even among those trying ostensibly to step out of it: though the concept of technological and biospheric limits has made it impossible to ignore its demise outright, we must keep it alive in some platonic universe somewhere.
Pressing forward into his fantasy world, Scharf goes on to his second massive unfounded speculation: that consciousness would not solely prefer machine incarnations (however those are defined), but would return to biological form every now and then, as it were for titillation, or for practical reasons.
“there could be a more optimal trajectory that leads away from machines and back to biology, with its remarkable energy efficiency.“
So, if we do come up with machines that think, those machines will eventually evolve back into biological organisms to save on their energy bills. Will they invent gossip magazines to escape the boredom of rigid computational honesty too, one wonders? Perhaps they will inevitably come to worship a Messiah through Whom they can attain the blessedness of biological existence? One can make this stuff up all day–and places like Aeon will publish it and pave your way to a book deal.
Scharf also keeps returning to the Fermi Paradox as a cross-beam in his line of thought (such as it is), failing to notice that the Fermi Paradox is really a very narrow observation with a wildly ramifying tree of possible explanations. Yes, we are the only life we observe, but we have simply zero data to support any explanation why that is so. Therefore the Paradox is often used by the charlatans and sensationalists of popular scientism to throw up a fog of Cosmic Wonderment, inside of which to carry out their tricks. But the fact remains that it tells us nothing, supports no arguments, except of course the vaguely awe-inducing feeling that “we’re not sure what’s going on”. Here is an example of this improper front-loading of the Paradox:
“the Fermi Paradox returns: where are those aliens now? A simple answer is that they might be fenced in by the extreme difficulty of interstellar transit, especially for physical, biological beings. Perhaps the old minds are out there, but the cost of returning to biology was a return to isolation.
Those early minds might have once built mega-structures and deployed cosmic engineering across the stars. Maybe some of that stuff is still out there, and perhaps we’re on the cusp of detecting some of it with our ever-improving astronomical devices.“
“Perhaps alien civilisations have retreated to a cloistered biological existence, with relics of their mechanical-era constructions crumbling under the rigours of cosmic radiation, evaporation, and explosive stellar filth.“
Doesn’t that just give you chills? Of course, there’s no reason for believing any of it. Scharf’s purpose, once again, is to edify and thrill, without actually enlightening. Carl Sagan, while at work on “Contact”, at least knew he was writing fiction.
Scharf leaves us with this weakly apologetic coda:
“There is no shame in admitting the highly speculative nature of these ideas, and there is something special about the questions that prompt them. We’re examining possible futures for ourselves. It is conceivable that the Universe is already telling us what those options really are. Such acts of self-examination are unlike any other human endeavour, and that alone is worth paying attention to.”
So, in summary, we are to be forever enthralled by possibilities of possibilities of possibilities that have no basis in scientific observation, because the questions that prompt them are somehow “special”. Leaving aside the absurdity and vagueness of the questions themselves, Scharf cannot say what their specialness might consist in, because he is committed to negating it in the same stroke with objectifying hand-waves to prove his alignment with the scientific mindset. Energy considerations aside, one cannot help wondering whether minds might feel the need to escape human bodies and transfer themselves into machine-brains on a distant planet purely to avoid having to read articles like this.
* * *
All in all, despite his slight deviations from the narrative of breakneck technological progress (AI may be a little slower in coming, or a little hard to do), nihilistic-awe writings such as Scharf’s are closely related to the modality of discourse that science journalist-cum-philosopher of science John Horgan, in his 1996 book “The End of Science”, presciently descried and pithily termed “ironic science”. In his words, ironic science is “science that is not experimentally testable or resolvable even in principle and therefore is not science in the strict sense at all”; its function, rather than being explanatory, is “to keep us awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos” . Unlike “science in the strict sense”, ironic science “cannot achieve empirically verifiable surprises that force scientists to make substantial revisions in their basic description of reality” .
The spread of ironic science would be less alarming if it were the case that “real scientists” neither read nor really believe any of these kinds of writings–that, if they are propaganda or even something worse, they are propaganda directed exclusively to the consumption of non-scientists and so amount to little more than fabulous story-telling, speculative science-fiction with a veneer of genuine scientific findings. Yet partly as a consequence of the ever-ramifying specialization and isolation of scientists’ work, many do in fact fall back upon such propaganda in order to keep abreast of other fields. Many scientists not only read such works on a regular basis, but increasingly are the sources of them–as Horgan’s book chronicles, often humorously.
This suggests either that the problem is not just one of crass manipulation for the sake of book deals and speaking engagements but of true belief; that the scientists themselves increasingly embrace nihilistic awe. Horgan’s discovery of the mode of “ironic science” is crucial to this point, for it reveals that in our time scientists themselves are increasingly prone to a double withdrawal: not only from the world of things qua things for the sake of “beautiful” ideas, but from empirical-objective reality of practical application and experimental verification as well. Both facts and things are being lost to a Platonic world of “ideas” that is grounded by no discipline, has no appreciation of anything outside its own accepted forms of calculation and reduction, and yet is now being driven by a vague roving religious need to be “awestruck before the mystery of the cosmos”.
The phenomenon of nihilistic awe and other such things in our time is representative of a need for substitutes for failed religion–an ersatz that will titillate us with the goosebumps-feeling of the unknown and the sublime while reassuring us that there’s nothing to see here and that everything is quite comprehensible. I have said that this constitutes a double-bind, but it is not clear to me yet whether this is a double-bind of the Zen koan or the Kuhnian crisis sort–a consternation that will break forth into new understanding–or of the Orwellian sort, whereby minds are destroyed by being forced to entertain contradictory ideas and inherently misdirecting categories.
Aside from Horgan’s already twenty-year-old observations about the quiet rise of ironic science as a kind of phony substitute for the epic novelties and discoveries of old to which we have become accustomed–if not addicted–and aside from the general public disillusionment at the many unfulfilled promises of scientific progress, there are growing indications even in elite corners that neither nihilistic awe nor scientism can provide the spiritual or emotional sustenance that they aim at. When even science-and-technology rags like Wired begin to grow queasy at the ongoing attempts by popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson to evoke our awe and then bottle it in formaldehyde for the glory of science–tellingly noting that “the subject-matter is cosmic and transcendental, the object-cause is petty and stupid”–or similarly, when news sites with names like ExtremeTech begin to roll their eyes when old ironic-scientific saws about whether our universe is “actually” a simulation get trotted for the umpteenth time, then one must believe that the game is gradually entering a different phase.
But although the absurdity and hollowness of nihilistic awe and its associated writings and personalities may be growing obvious even to the dedicated admirers of science and technology, we are still left with the question of what to replace it with–what to do with the “god-shaped hole”, as Salman Rushdie once described it, left by modern disenchantment not only with traditional religion, but now increasingly with science as well. What finally, is the remedy to this twisted and disingenuous form of exposition, this bankruptness of belief and thought that clothes itself in the names of awe and reverence? The search for this remedy has been the central preoccupation of many great thinkers in the techno-scientific age, from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Nishitani.
I would propose that one solution has been known for millennia, and has only rather recently been abandoned–if not left for dead–in the past several decades in technological cultures. It is not a question of a better set of religious tenets, though it may inspire such. It is also not a question of creating a kinder, more satisfying, or even more accurate kind of science. It is, rather, a sensibility, and a means of expression, that has proven fit to encompassing the most awesome discoveries and the most heart-rending myths. That sensibility is, quite simply, poetry, the poetic.
There is certainly not space here to explore in any serious way the full meaning and importance of the poetic as it relates to human society and daily life. Still, it is worth pointing out that the power of the poetic has been banished to an exceedingly narrow idea in our times, insofar as it is an idea at all: it is a literal view, where poems exist exclusively as discrete verbal constructions, in turn produced by a mixture of pretentious slam-artists, hypersensitive recluses, dry academics, and other esoteric or generally negatively-connoted persons. The poetic is mistrusted or discounted as fanciful, indulgent, misleading, or weakling, especially alongside the unquestioned virtues of innovation, expansion, acceleration, and toil.
This is a great loss, for poetry serves a purpose far beyond any of these spitefully narrow constructs; in short, is the natural language of myth and revelation–of precisely the things that nihilistic awe attempts vainly and disingenuously to fill. In the recent movie “the Big Short”, whose subject of the desperate pursuit of hollow assets unto the point of ruin parallels in the valuative sphere the movement of nihilistic awe in the spiritual sphere, there is a quote flashed on the screen that encapsulates the attitude we now inhabit: “Truth is like poetry. And most people fucking hate poetry.” This is the torment we face–we turn to one substitute, one ersatz after another, knowing that something is missing, but still find ourselves filled with an antipathy or contempt towards the very thing that might truly fulfill us. We have lost, for the time being, the ability to connect with this world.
Nietzsche, in “The Birth of Tragedy”, observes that “the first thing the youthful tragedian Plato did was to burn his poetry so that he could become a pupil of Socrates” . The Socratic mentality pervades our culture now, Nietzsche contends, and forms the core of the scientific and “optimistic” worldview that pervades it. Just as following it induced Plato to destroy his own work, this worldview is intrinsically destructive to the poetic: “Anyone who recalls the immediate effects produced by this restlessly advancing spirit of science will recognize at once how myth was destroyed by it, and how this destruction drove poetry from its natural, ideal soil, so that it became homeless from that point onwards.”
Heidegger, in his essay “The Question Concerning Technology”, holds up the poet Hölderlin’s phrase, “poetically dwells man upon this earth”, as a possible antithesis to the growing emptiness and narrowness of technological (and scientific) thinking. Elsewhere, in his “Letter on Humanism”, he notes that “the world’s destiny is heralded in poetry”. This gives hope that the re-awakening of the poetic indeed holds the power to rescue us, but it also gives us reason to fear for the world’s destiny if the fall of poetic understanding, and its usurpation by nihilistic awe, is not somehow reversed.
Yet, despite its unappealing and ill-fitting aspects, it is possible to look at nihilistic awe not as part of the unraveling of science, nor as a purely money-making or social conceit, nor even as the objectifying of psychic phenomena that ought to be treated as much more than objects–but as a thus-far largely unconscious thrust to break free of just such objectification. Our misapprehension of and even resentment of the poetic has led us ever deeper into the whirlpool of objectification, and also reduced our understanding of how to get back out of that whirlpool. And yet, as symbolic objectification has reached extremes–as in ironic science, in the self-abnegating mechanization of life, in the fashionability of the “biological inferiority complex”, and in the reduction of all things to computation–it has increasingly shown signs of breaking apart under its own inner tensions. It may be that the awe within nihilistic awe itself is the source of this tension–that it longs to break free of its Platonic minders, to move past the dualism between understanding and understood, and to ascend back into the hall of things-as-things and of living myth.
In the same quote of Hölderlin, there is an allusion to a “saving power” that arises as the spiritual danger of technology becomes too overpowering. If nihilistic awe turns out to be more about awe than nihilism–as may be evident in the ever-thinner empirical pretexts employed in such work–it may, counterintuitively, be the first cryptic manifestation of this saving power. Guided by that power, these once-tawdry snippets of scientism could birth not mere sensationalism but fully-fledged mythopoetic visions, capable of filling the angry psychic vacancies left by a world turned over-and-against us by relentless abstraction and objectification. This is a question of great importance for the future of technological civilization, but it will not be possible to resolve it until, first, we are able to leave off fooling ourselves about what we want, and where we are at home.