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After Beer Bottles: Contemporary Nihilism and The National Bloom

I will slog over this endless road to its end. Until my heart stops, I will slog over this endless, endless road with nothing to lose but the dust, what has died in me, and a row of palms toward what vanishes.

I Will Slog Over This Road, Mahmoud Darwish.

nothing fixes everything                      but there is no
future without
breathing or watering or falling                      and so
the three i do

Doesn’t it all Go to Vinegar Margaret, Kyle Dacuyan

With the lights out, it’s less dangerous
Here we are now, entertain us
I feel stupid and contagious

Smells Like Teen Spirit, Nirvana.

It was long ago in the city of Lagos. One sweltering day at Estate Bus-stop, a small number of people were waiting to board a Danfo to the extended area of Lagos Island. Getting from Estate to Obalende is fifty Naira—everyone pays in the good faith they alight at the promised destination. On occasions, the driver breaks this unspoken contract in a bid to avoid harassment by the police and other traffic authorities; there is also the decision to avoid the long route causing an eventual delay in returning back to business. On a day like this we do not get to Obalende. Dropping us at the mouth of the bridge is a huge inconvenience, as most passengers will have to complete the rest of their commute by foot. Mumbles and curses flit from the lips of disgruntled passengers but no one demands the driver or conductor to do right by them. Everyone gets off and begins to find their level; we are all angry but we keep it moving.

It goes that to ‘keep it moving’ is one of the motley characteristics of Bloom. Named after Leopold Bloom from James Joyce’s Ulysses, Tiqqun’s The Theory of Bloom stirs a rhetorical treatise that makes tangible the crisis of a modern subject under late capitalism. Bloom is incarnated to at once be an individual and universal subject. And so, Bloom, “is masked Nothingness. That is why it would be absurd to celebrate his emergence in history as the advent of a particular human type: the man without qualities is not a certain quality of man, but on the contrary man as man, the final realization of the generic human essence, which is precisely the deprivation of any essence, is pure exposure and pure availability: worm1 Driven by a complex system of contradictions, Bloom lives in this perpetual nothingness. Bloom is carved to be a no-one, a nothing-subject, so that he is everyone. Given the publication of the text in 2000, the topology of Bloom’s psyche—alienation, ennui, defeat, listlessness, emotional precarity, occasional or sustained misanthropy, an identity crisis today and the day after tomorrow—can as well be similar to, if not more accelerated in that of a person in this present age. Some of these embodied emotions, particularly alienation, have been prophesied in Karl Marx’s early critique of capitalism. If Bloom is so distanced from a sense of self in their work, they ultimately risk alienation from themselves, and by extension, others. But labour and capital, while playing a heavy hand, isn’t all that influence one’s wellness, consciousness, and desires in a material sphere. To enframe everything in purely economic terms mystifies psycho-social and political entanglements.

Despite qualities speckled here and there that can offer points of relation for a Nigerian and a French, it fails to escape a flatlining gaze in its attempt to speak for every human. In her critique, Jackie Wang deconstructs its illusive ability to really account for difference, its failure in reducing identities to mere signifiers. Tiqqun writes, “Whether it’s a woman’s body or a man’s or even bodies of indiscernible form, Bloom’s flesh is still a prisoner of the non-sensual sexuation that traverses it. But this omnipresent yet never assumed sexuation is but the source of a dull, persistent pain, like the pain felt by amputees for a member that no longer exists. Whence the essentially spectral character, the sinister aura of contemporary mass pornography: it’s never anything but the presence of an absence. In the thoroughly semiotized world of Bloom, a phallus and a vagina are merely signs that refer to something else, to a referent that no one encounters in a reality that does not cease to melt away. Bloom’s flesh is sad and devoid of mystery. ”2

A cow alone by the beach

The author(s) frame identitiy as a “bad substantiality,” providing distraction from the overwhelming nausea of contemporary living.3  Identities might be signifiers that don’t generate a universal essence, Wang argues, “Except that what the signifiers signify within our society are totally different and have very “real” consequences in terms of how we live and what we experience on a day-to-day basis.”4

It is simply not the experience of some people to gather all subsets of their identities and use that  at will to escape the underlying thrum of nothingness undergirding existence. It fails to see that regardless of being Nigerian, queer, or biologically femme, I can be, and am most times miserable together with everyone else.

Shared misery present despite difference can be observed from the vignette of the hot day in Lagos, Nigeria. I often contemplate a Nigerian Bloom and its unique constitution. How different this experience is for someone living in a nuclear or individualist unit in Lagos and another in an extended family in Ikom, Cross River. The hustle in cities is distinct than in towns. Arguably, the former contributes to an upward climb on the Bloom scale. Instead of attacking a them that takes the “bad substantiality” of race, class or gender serious, Tiqqun, missed the opportunity to empathise with the ways modern bodies escape, sometimes to their detriment, this ever present nothingness. Moralizing admonitions, however, on escapist preoccupations fail to unravel the complexities that compel these desires, it victimises without a direct spotlight on the problem, invents unhelpful categories of good and bad. For instance, Friedrich Nietzsche disabused the consumption of alcohol but not without hinting to existential reasons. The choice to chase money is as reflective of a Bloom consciousness as the lazing dude who deliberately opts to do nothing; so also, abstinence from alcohol isn’t any braver than the drunken lifestyle. In a capitalist reality, Mark Fisher, who is a lot more sympathetic to the depressed subject, names a depressive hedonia distinct from anhedonia which is characterized by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure.5

“So it follows that Bloom is a free spirit, for he is an empty one.”

Bloomness can be taken as the embodied experience of Nihilism. Teeming with paralysis and passivity, its abysmal dizziness is the winged muse of many a’existential poetry. It is a mediatory cuddly-state after disillusionment. Dark and brash, heavy is its streak on the eyelid’s of a emo-goth, the “noise,’’ blared from spirited industrial music, punk rock and its derivatives. This nihilist is sometimes proud of their descent: “I am a nihilist motherfucker!” or assumes a stoic position of laughing with their anxieties. Nihilism poses frequently as the notorious culprit animating teenage angst and easily takes the fall for heinous crimes. In all these positions, nihilism as a void is borne with many affective potentials.

The void is a sexy concept. There is an allure in falling off the ledge of disillusionment and staying there, courting passivity day after day. In Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street by Herman Melville, Bartleby is employed as a legal copyist for an attorney in Manhattan. He is dutiful till he is not. On the third day, he asked to proof a copied text, “a very dull and wearisome, and lethargic affair,” but he responds with “I would prefer not to.”6 Instead of working, he spends long hours staring through the window at a brick wall. At the initial stage of refusal, Bartleby provides a joy of representation for the reader with a rebellious streak, until yasss Bartleby! quickly becomes uhhhhh… .  Joy shifts to amusement really, as a reader has their own version of uhhhhh…. when we find out too, as his employer, that he has moved in to live in the office space. This, is in stark contrast to Dwight from the TV series, The Office, who preferred to sneeze with his eyes open and pee in an empty soda bottle by his desk to avoid wasting one lick of time on unrelated work activities. Both reactions mirror the impossible logic of ‘productivity’ as defined by capitalism.

Bartleby’s empowering “I will prefer not to” was focal in the last chapter in Slavoj Zizek’s The Parrallax View. Here, Zizek asserts the state of perpetually doing nothing as the way “which opens up a new space outside the hegemonic position and its negation.”7 He describes Bartleby’s continuous refusal to do work as a pure negation.

According to Zizek’s conception of negation, Bartleby offers an act of pure transgression by completely opting out of dual oppositions: power and resistance; structures—the state and the citizen; in the case above, it eradicates everything and everything within the space of relation between the capitalist machinery and the worker. Despite other propositions, like Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri’s in Empire, which conceives of an “ I would prefer not to,” as a preliminary state, a necessary position of disillusionment—distance—to see the cracks in their social order, but must move from an abstract negation to a determinate negation, he insists that pure refusal and pure negativity is the only true escape.8 One can recognize this as the totallizing, singular view of a white male subjectivity, but even the French folks of Tiqqun admit “ It’s certain that Bloom bears the potential for bringing down commodity society. In him we find that quality of ambivalence which marks all the realities by which the transcendence of commodity society on its on terrain is manifested.”9

Loopholes are plenteous with Zizek’s only true change by pure negation: the thought that change isn’t transitionary, that watersheds happens in an instant. This proposition of pure negativity is as blind to its end as it is to a means of “inherent transgression,” which is a mere contrarian exercise, only as radical as pure conceptual exercises in the face of violence. Pure negativity is eternal silence, an acceptance, one internal decision to die. Both negation and a politics of subtraction—“the gesture of subtraction at its purest, the reduction of all qualitative differences to a purely formal minimal difference.”—that says no to all invitations effect a triangle of social, political and ontological suicide. It is no surprise that the benevolent employer concerned about Bartleby finds him dead at the end of the story.10

Pure negation shrouds the question of choice. For all the claim to ground one in a position of exteriority, this apositional space still comes with an addresser, an addressee and an address (the decided response). Doing nothing is doing something insofar the subject is aware of its not-doing. The game is the game and a Zizekian Bartleby staying alive is still playing it. In all fairness, pure negation is for the subject who has nothing to lose; I would prefer not to.

Gloria Richardson walking past National Guardsmen during a civil rights march in Cambridge, Maryland, June 1963. Photo: The Baltimore Sun

A crucial interpretation of negation is shown in Calvin Warren’s  Black Nihilism and The Politics of Hope. Nihilism for the black subject is a gateway from the Political and its politics of hope—similar to James Baldwin’s quip on the illusion of incremental progress— prescribed by external structures like the state or the church. Hope, as framed by western spirituality, “the point” of black suffering, and the collective jouissance from it are exploited as “conceptual instruments of the Political that will never obviate black suffering or anti-black violence.” He continues, “These concepts only serve to reproduce the conditions that render existence unbearable for blacks.”11 So the position of the black nihilist repudiates this exploitative scheme by excising themselves from that corpus of political hope: “The nihilist, then, hopes for the end of political hope and its metaphysical violence. Nihilism is not antithetical to hope; it does not extinguish hope but reconfigures it. Hope is the foundation of the black nihilistic hermeneutic.”12 The Black thinking body slides past the gravity of grace, the “nobility in suffering,” the poetry or meaning from Black suffering. “Ultimately,” Warren writes, “what the black person must hope for is the end of political hope.”13 If hope can be reconfigured, what is a Black nihilist to do when, yet, another Black body is killed by the state?

What is it for a body that decides to rise to the sun despite yesterday’s scorch?

I circle to Friedrich Nietzsche’s Will to Power to restore a field of potentiality to the dank deadlock nihilism is usually portrayed to be. It is however important to note that this return is an invitation to think along with him, as these were fragments revised over years but were only published after his death.

In the fragment slated in November 1887- March 1888, Nietzsche writes, “Nihilism as a psychological state will have to be reached, first, when we have sought a “meaning” in all events that is not there: so the seeker eventually becomes discouraged. Nihilism, then, is the recognition of the long waste of strength, the agony of the “in vain,” insecurity, the lack of any opportunity to recover and to regain composure—being ashamed in front of oneself, as if one had deceived oneself all too long.”14 He describes “ a third and last form” in which “the individual could immerse himself completely as in an element of supreme value, an escape remains: to pass sentence on this whole world of becoming as a deception and to invent a world beyond it, a true world.”15

In another fragment that attempts a definitive classification of nihilism, he writes, “Nihilism. It is ambiguous:

A. Nihilism as a sign of increased power of the spirit: as active nihilism.

B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit: as passive nihilism.”16

What the brand of nihilism preaching perpetual negativity fails to see is the innate paradox, the possibility of joy and sorrow existing side by side. The vision of a non-existent horizon is injurious to the body and spirit. It refutes nihilism as an emotional and epistemic mode of being that can follow immutable laws of the cosmos: energy never being fully destroyed or created but can be transformed from one form to another. The maxim, anything comes from nothing, isn’t merely a fantasy. Between nothing and something is an active concerted effort. Recognizing a real and alternative potential of nihilism is necessary to survive, and as an added perk, to survive well. Even with his contested status as a chronic cynic, Nietzsche was one who dwelt in a nuance holding pluralities. He once wrote:

In the end, lest what is most important remain unsaid: from such abysses, from such severe sickness, also from the sickness of severe suspicion, one returns a newborn, having shed one’s skin, more ticklish and malicious, with a more delicate taste for joy, with a tenderer tongue for all good things, with merrier senses, with a second dangerous innocence in joy, more child-like and yet a hundred times subtler than one has ever been before.17

One navigating today’s realities is not unknowing to certain points of disillusionment punctuating the course of our lives. I had these many stop points, with  its continuous learning and unlearning of what friendship or love meant, aligning and rejecting meaning assigned to me based on the body I inhabit. The most momentously nihilistic would have to be entirely letting go of an incoherent and stifling religion. The memory of it is still as fresh, when I stood in front of my bedroom window enjoying the bodily sensation of being unshackled. But freedom too is as paradoxical as it is paralysing. Almost after a private renunciation, journeying on was messy and unpleasurable because I removed a huge chunk of what it meant to be me, I splintered. In retrospect, it is easy now to hold account for that period as a result of a decision I made. Then, still sitting in the swirl of the void, the articulation of the afters was repeating what it felt like: everyday I woke up still feeling the harsh heat of being slapped into another reality. It was all empty, that void. Unbeknown to me, the void was also one of pure potentiality.

This is one small fraction of many other nihilistic stop points, but this one ran down an existential core. Familial presences were around, cosmic interventions abounded, but its positive effects were only felt when the I opened eyes to other possibilities. What I’ve applied thereafter is to keep making the I active. Not only does it offer a self-serving pride in taking responsibility, it is a means of mining the void, recognising the generative power of the I.

Society does slap one into that moribund void, no doubt, but there is always the afters. For when the knit of values, meaning and myths come undone, when truths once upheld is revealed as nebulous, the cradle of the void we fall into can be a time of necessary grief, to find recourse, and perhaps learn the trouble with a sole reliance on singular idols, stories, systems, or perspectives. Although I do not conceive of an active nihilism and its absolute transcendence of the void—being is bleak on some days, I see it as a means of creating many anchors, a void transformed, made more vitally meaningful, on our own terms.

Anchors, Transmutation and Resistance

The meaning of the word bloom—as a state or period of flowering—can be interpreted as a pun for the eponymous subject in Tiqqun’s The Theory of Bloom. As Bloomness (or nihilism) is  inextricably linked to the days of our lives, there is not much hack than the hack of anchoring vastly. One choosing to stay afloat and drift still must cast their spells, alchemize, and externalize all of that “negative” energy into things that surpass a concentrated rootlessness.

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart), 1983. Photograph: Allison Chipak/Collection of Nina Clemente, New York

To anchor isn’t much a proposition that demands self-identification as a nihilist or a belief sect to tap into. An active nihilism is writ large in history— in fact, there are many people who gave into this way of being without a claim to such defined mode of navigating their world. To circle what can be seen as nihilistic manifestations: Jean-Michel Basquiat, in mind and ambition, outdid the dominant figurative aesthetics framing the art of the 60’s— a time when contemporary art was still struggling for the baton from avant-garde modernism. From the dadaists to the surrealists and absurdists, language, an empty canvass or performance had been co-opted effectively as mediums for their subversive intentions. In his interview with the New Yorker, Donald Glover reveals a similar sentiment in his logic of hacking “an algorithmic reality”: “When people become depressed and kill themselves, it’s because all they see is the algorithm, the loop.” With his practice—which some other artists might share a similar idea of— he speaks of it as a way, like some people, to trick and toy with our senses to “affect this thing hidden inside our skulls.”18 We, as artists or not, must in someway, all make bloom from the shape of gloom.

Nowhere else has the political imperative of an active nihilism been exerted than in resistance and liberation movements for oppressive orders incessant with its racial, gendered and classist violence. All, an added layer of strain on the difficulty of already grappling with what it means to be alive and human. To be poor, black, femme and queer is inherently nihilistic in a state that precludes their safety and self-actualisation.

Resistance has never been pure/mere ideology. Tucked within each revolutionary movement is the desire to align the world with a more evolved vision of humanity, the assertion of radical agency, care, survival, and a resulting plenitude of hack-tactics integrated into a larger constellation, a combat canon. Again, to circle through testimonies of a combat canon: The Black Panther Party planted autonomist seeds for racial and communal self-determination. Malcolm X’s speeches geared toward restoring Black consciousness to a place of pride. African big dreamers like Thomas Sankara provided a vision of a Pan-African inter-sectionalist (economic, feminist and agrarian) revolution for post-colonies. In Nigeria, the Aba Market Women’s rebellion of 1929 set an historical precedent for a resistance that was informed by both gender and class. In both artistic and political domains, nihilism and its progenies is an accretive apparatus: the more events of disillusionment, the more sophisticated the means of resistance.

“Alaye small small”: a proposition for durational and syncretic movements for the time to come.

EndSARS protesters call for action in Manhattan, New York. Photo: Tiem Okori

To declare that Nigeria is scheduled for its revolution, whether it likes it or not, is to state an obvious fact. Toward the end of Tiqqun’s comprehensive entanglement with the forces that make Bloom, they urge bloomers to mark and designate a front as a preliminary to combat. With experimentation and alliances, like one with the “invisible committee,” they can work their way out of the bloom economy. The postscript of the Italian edition explicitly enlists communism as the alternative and “only ethical disposition.”19 Nations never do wrong in looking to world history and the presentness of other nations for strategies to adopt in running a state, it only falters in a copy and paste-without-scrutiny assimilation. Situating knowledge in certain contexts must come with integrating its own specific historic and material conditions.

Despite the slight soar of Nigeria’s GDP last year, and the impressive turn out of younger politicians for the presidential election in 2019, there is a huge ton of work in realizing resistance(s) that is to come. One day, another incendiary cannonball will hit the oppressive state, but only when the canon has been midwifed. Only a matter of time now, but only intentional planning will get resistance there. Frantz Fanon was critical of the socio-political consciousness of newly independent African nations: “It so happens that the unpreparedness of the educated classes, the lack of practical links between them and the mass of the people, their laziness, and, let it be said, their cowardice at the decisive moment of the struggle will give rise to tragic mishaps.”20 In naming problems, sometimes simplistic judgement of laziness and cowardice, again, doesn’t quite show situations for the complexity they are.

If a Nigerian is Bloom, they are in peculiar and universal ways. In the contemporary Nigerian society, the passive nihilist does not act typically in the way of a chauvinist, defending a dysfunctional state, playing to the trick of hope and deceit of the party manifesto; they are aware of its ills but are too busy surviving to not live in accordance to it. Nigeria as a relatively young independent state is characterized by its incoherent and multivalent political shape; a miasma still unmoored completely from its militaristic and colonial past. This confusion is also reflected in the big economy in the big cities, its economic desires not quite weaned off the breast of its imperial patriarch. Fanon described a facet of this as the “prestige economy” which is loyal to transforming budding economic zones to a metropolitan status as projected by the so-called first world countries. National commitment shifts from nurturing an economy “ that places the whole economy at the service of the nation and deciding to satisfy the needs of the nation.”21  In these big zones, the grind is hard and savage, the dream of every occupant is enslaved to the promise of a share of the national moi-moi. So this passivity is not only one that is extremely hard to opt out of, the wretched economic state in Nigeria makes it a matter of survival or nothing, to grind to not die. Another nature of this figure is the ahistoric and intergenerational pessimism, fatigue, passed to each individual— even those for whom  pure survival is not the only option.

Where have we arrived at?

A frequent critique of such instigation, as this, to the work for another Nigeria is one that decides to see such work as yet another cycle of repetition and simulated difference, which will usher a plunge back to disillusion again. To that I say, look deeper and farther. To that, Alaaye small small for inside lives and outside lives.

Alaaye small small is said to one whose gra gra (impatience) is too much. Alaaye small small knows that combating day and night is not sustainable. Alaaye small small speaks of haste spread over time. It places a reconfigured, internal hope in a better Nigeria ahead, breaths possibility, submits to time being time and things taking the time they take.22 It also speaks to small gestures as part of the work. This is to say there is attendance to the larger work of producing the canonballs and the minute work of creating the conditions that make the canonballs exact. An active nihilism for the time to come is not limited to, but lies as a matter of service in the hands of middle grounders — herein the individuals who are not so pressed to worry for just life and not far removed from the realities of the working and the economically marginalized. Harking back again to specificity, it has always been necessary to articulate what that looks like. Taking lessons from historical precedents that can inform progress from failures, the intentioned hope, and resulting action that seed a collective resistance.

This pull to smallness is one that indicates the need for a work that is done not just collectively but the seemingly small work of each individual position: the love we do, the care that we give, continuously resolving colonial trauma, forgiving the failures of our ancestors. Small small in the art, in the dance, in the song. Big movements occur because of the small small. There is after all no collective mass without its constituents. One dreaming for a better Nigeria can not see their work as the canon itself but a constituent of it. A syncretic pool of the impassioned, the gargantuan, the round trail of radical thought from time past and present. The cannon needs everything, the collaborative or independent contribution from the advisor, the theorist, the economist, the artist, the philosopher, the nurturer, the consciousness raiser. In the world that is, one simply examines their choice from their position, unexamined gra gra aside.

  1. Tiqqun, The Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley ( LBC Books, 2012), 33.  
  2. Tiqqun, The Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley ( LBC Books, 2012), 23.  
  3. This position of bad substantiality is slightly revised in Tiqqun’s 2012 “How is To Be Done ?” to one that accommodates more difference. However locating and highlighting a position as the former is useful for refuting this, or any dilution of difference. See reference in Tiqqun, The Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley ( LBC Books, 2012), 68.  
  4. “Jackie Wang | A critique of The Theory of Bloom By Tiqqun,” Columbia Centre for Contemporary Critical Thought, accessed May 1, 2020.http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/praxis1313/jackie-wang-a-critique-of-the-theory-of-bloom-by-tiqqun-2010/  
  5. Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There no Alternative, (Winchester: Zero Books, 2009)21- 22.  
  6. Herman Melville, Bartleby and Benito Cereno, (Dover Publications, 1990), 9-10  
  7. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, ( Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006) 381-382  
  8. Žižek, The Parrallax View, 382. See also Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).  
  9. Tiqqun, The Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley ( LBC Books, 2012), 96  
  10. Žižek, The Parallax View, 381-382  
  11. Calvin Warren, “Black Nihilism and The Politics of Hope,” The New Centennial Review Vol. 15, No. 1, (Spring 2015). See version by Ill Will Editions (June 2015): 30  
  12. Ibid., 31  
  13. Ibid., 32  
  14. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 21- 22.  
  15. Ibid., 45.  
  16. Ibid.,50  
  17. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1968), 54  
  18. Tad Friend, “Donald Glover can’t save you,” New Yorker, February 26, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/03/05/donald-glover-cant-save-you  
  19. Tiqqun, The Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley ( LBC Books, 2012), 143.  
  20. See Frantz Fanon, “The Pitfalls of National Consciousness,”1. Available in hyperlink.  
  21. Ibid., 1.  
  22. Adopts a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “ St. Augustine.”  
Adéolá Olákìítán

Adéolá Olákìítán is a writer and transdisciplinary curator working between Lagos and New York.