When Glenn Beck heard that Jay-Z had sported a leather jacket with the cover of Eugene Thacker’s book In the Dust of this Planet stenciled on the back, he got mad. That’s his thing after all, it’s what Beck does.
In this case one of his interns sparked the anger by informing Beck that the book on Jay-Z’s back was about Nihilism. Now Nihilism, as a political movement, dates back to 19th century Russia and I’m sure that this marked the book, in Beck’s mind, as just one more pawn moved against America in a centuries long commie plot. For Beck the word Nihilist is code for “progressive” and the word “progressive” is code for “nihilist.”
All of this is exactly what you’d expect from Beck, but what might be easy to miss as you watch this paranoid version of Romper Room is how self-contradictory Beck’s rant really is, and how he himself brushes up against nihilism as he plays connect the dots.
The problem is that Beck’s 12 step version of Christianity brings along with it a conviction that humans can’t be trusted to think. This along with his weird embrace of Thomas Paine demonstrates that self-contradiction and irrationality are no problem at all for Beck. Only in a world that is fundamentally mad can a revolutionary like Paine be used as a mouthpiece for religious nut like Beck, but from Beck’s own perspective his actions are consistent. After all, the world may be mad, but it’s also God’s creation. And given the fact that God doesn’t want us to think why should we?
Regarding Nihilism, those who dare to actually read the book Jay-Z wore while biking across the desert will discover that Thacker, who consciously embraces the label of nihilist, likes to think so much that he’s reached thought’s very limits.
Consider this excerpt from In the Dust of this Planet:
The world-in-itself is a paradoxical concept; the moment we think it and attempt to act on it, it ceases to be the world-in-itself and becomes the world-for-us. A significant part of this paradoxical world-in-itself is grounded by scientific inquiry – both the production of scientific knowledge of the world and the technical means of acting on and intervening in the world. Even though there is something out there that is not the world-for-us, and even though we can name it the world-in-itself, this latter constitutes a horizon for thought, always receding just beyond the bounds of intelligibility. Tragically, we are most reminded of the world-in-itself when the world-in-itself is manifest in the form of natural disasters. The discussions on the long-term impact of climate change also evoke this reminder of the world-in-itself, as the specter of extinction furtively looms over such discussions. Using advanced predictive models, we have even imagined what would happen to the world if we as human beings were to become extinct. So, while we can never experience the world-in-itself, we seem to be almost fatalistically drawn to it, perhaps as a limit that defines who we are as human beings. Let us call this spectral and speculative world the world-without-us.
In a sense, the world-without-us allows us to think the world-in-itself, without getting caught up in a vicious circle of logical paradox. The world-in-itself may co-exist with the world-for-us – indeed the human being is defined by its impressive capacity for not recognizing this distinction. By contrast, the world-without-us cannot co-exist with the human world-for-us; the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world. To say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in the terms of the world-for-us. To say that the world-without-us is neutral with respect to the human, is to attempt to put things in the terms of the world-in-itself. The world-without-us lies somewhere in between, in a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific. The world-without-us is as much a cultural concept as it is a scientific one, and, as this book attempts to show, it is in the genres of supernatural horror and science fiction that we most frequently find attempts to think about, and to confront the difficult thought of, the world-without-us.
What’s going on in this passage is that the self-proclaimed Nihilist is, in truth, laying out the foundation of Immanuel Kant’s ethics. In Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the philosopher marks the limits of thought, figures out just what it is that we can’t know and where the line is between say the noumenal world and the world as it is for itself, in an effort to proceed to what we can know and what we must do.
The joke here, other than Beck’s stage persona, is that it’s Beck with his jibber jabber and sentimental love of nation, God, and conservatism who is the real skeptic, the true relativist. The joke is that Beck’s trust in God and Nation is just a bad cover for his belief in the power of his own voice while it’s Thacker who is asking us to think, and more than that, to feel.
More specifically he is asking us to think about our feeling of dread.
Thacker tells us that “what genre horror does is it takes aim at the presuppositions of philosophical inquiry – that the world is always the world-for-us – and makes of those blind spots its central concern, expressing them not in abstract concepts but in a whole bestiary of impossible life forms – mists, ooze, blobs, slime, clouds, and muck.”
These blob monsters and mists stand in for the unthinkable, for unreason, according to Thacker, but by approaching these things as horrors the reader finds herself able to think the unthinkable after all. And that’s what drives Glenn Beck into his fits of rage. Not the dread, not the nihilism, but the way turning our attention toward what is horrible we may, in the end, be able to think of something new after all.