Nihilism, Nietzsche & Billie Eilish
What the Edgelords and finger-wagging Boomers get wrong
“Millennial Nihilism” is a phrase used a lot online, often used in bad faith but equally I do see why the philosophy of Nihilism might be attractive at the moment given how hopeless the future looks judging by any of the myriad horrors befalling the globe today. As such a resigned acceptance, if not a willing embrace of the encroaching void, seems reasonable. But I think both responses, the desperate cling to out of date values or the borderline contempt for everything, in the face of the current crises are somewhat lazy interpretations of the complex philosophy of Nihilism.
Nihilism, as we think of it today, is largely defined by the ideas of a one Friedrich Nietzsche (a strange person to have become almost a household name but here we are) though the concepts associated with nihilism were present many years before him. In broad terms, Nihilism is a rejection of any sense of meaning, objective truth or morality in life. But if you’ve read Nietzsche you’ll notice his use of the term is quite liberal, with various meanings and understandings associated with it. Nietzsche’s more nuanced argument is not that Nihilism is the overall point, that nothing means anything and that’s that, but that nihilism reveals existence as a ‘blank slate’ through which we are granted perspective. He rejected certain religious doctrines that ascribed intrinsic value to things as this meant we must accept those meanings given to us no questions asked, whereas the ‘truth’ (if there is such a thing) is that everything’s value is dependent on perspective. What is fascinating is that this theory has been borne out in contemporary sciences the more we investigate.
Whether it’s Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the Observer Problem or even Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, most major scientific research acknowledges the problem of perspective. The very fact human beings involve themselves in objective reality fundamentally alters it. This also goes a long way to understanding the roots of the Sciences being in Philosophy itself, with the desire to question and understand our reality intrinsic to both. Even in a discipline seemingly far removed from both, Economics, we see a certain nihilistic influence given the understanding it offers on value. The bedrock of any financial interaction is based on the theory of value that states an object’s monetary worth is based solely on what a customer will pay for it. There are, of course, other factors to this (labour and the cost of resources for example) but fundamentally nothing will sell if no one will buy. Nihilism helps us understand that an apple is just an apple with no intrinsic value that only gains value when you need something to eat, i.e. our perspective alters the object’s value. We give the meaningless meaning. Which is where the current discussion on nihilism falls short.
Today, a lot of the references to the theory online are either expressed in a head-shaking, tutting way about “The Worrisome Rise of Nihilism Amongst Millennials” or the “Honk if you love dying and being dead” meme that lovingly embraces that meaninglessness. Both miss the point. The latter because it sees Nihilism as the start and end and the former because, firstly it ignores the fact that the same was being said of teenagers in the 90s (thanks to bands like Nirvana whose frontman tragically took his own life, only for one of his song’s titles “I Hate Myself and I Wanna Die” being turned into a t-shirt) and secondly they’re not complaining about the inherent nihilist philosophies of bankers and corporate CEOs who derive their business from the model of value perspective. There’s also the actually troubling trend among certain ‘extremely online’ young men who speak of being “black pilled” via a lens of warped nihilism and self-describe as ‘Involuntary Celebates’ or ‘Incels’. This is a gross misrepresentation and misunderstanding of nihilism that has created poster boys out of film characters like Tyler Durden from Fight Club and the Joker from the Dark Knight, both of whom are either overtly mentally ill or victims of adverse childhood events and traumas who end up as violent murderers but, luckily for the movie, are charismatic with it. All of these perspectives (oh, the irony) miss Nietzsche’s point that it is us that gives the world meaning not that it is simply meaningless. Seeing a popular TikTok of someone arguing that “it doesn’t really matter because we’re all going to die so what’s the point” ignores the fact that the meaninglessness IS the point. The fact that life is meaningless is why it has meaning, because we create it. Whether you believe in life after death or that once you are dead that’s it, both beliefs argue that it is what you do with your life here and now that is important. To be a Nihilist is not to sit and atrophy because the universe is not constantly showering you with meaning, it is to use that knowledge of its meaningless to create your own.
One of my favourite proponents on this form of optimistic nihilism is the artist Billie Eilish who, at the age of sixteen, when asked by Vanity Fair “What is your philosophy?” Replied with the slightly altered statement to “life is meaningless so what’s the point” as “Everyone’s gonna die and no one will remember you, so f**k it” which has since become a trend on TikTok where people take the audio of that statement and play it under a video of themselves cutting their hair in a surprising way, going swimming outdoors in the rain, parachuting from a plane and generally living their life to the fullest by throwing themselves headlong at life and giving it the meaning it needs. Far from the bleak perspective of psychopaths like the Joker, Billie’s perspective on nihilism makes even the darkest days full of the rich experience that makes life worth living. Of all the many people online who claim to be fans of Nietzsche and his philosophy but use it to encourage self-destructive activities, or even those who lambast him and his writings as ‘dangerous’, it was a 15 year old singer from California who best summed the philosophy up: Nihilism does not show us why life is unimportant, it show us why it is.