Elevate Pop Culture
  • Story

    Elevate Pop Culture

    A New School for Social Research faculty member makes philosophy chic.

    You know you’ve made it when your intellectual pursuits are viewed as a threat. During a recent episode of The Glenn Beck Program, the right-wing pundit bashed Eugene Thacker, author, philosopher, and associate professor of media studies and liberal studies at The New School for Social Research, claiming that his recent book, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy, Vol. 1, had contributed to a recent surge in “pop nihilism.” Today Thacker’s words continue to reverberate across the globe. At The New School, where critical inquiry is a community standard, students and faculty investigate theories that critically engage, challenge, and illuminate the world.

    On his show, an outraged Beck stated that controversial ideas from Thacker’s book had shown up in the script of the HBO TV series True Detective, the videos of Jay Z and Beyoncé, the pages of fashion magazines, and the works of several contemporary artists. “Suddenly this obscure book is everywhere,” Beck complained. “It’s cool to be a nihilist.” 

    Beck’s claim does bring up important questions about how nihilism, a philosophical counterpart to existentialism, is perceived by the public. “Why are these positions so threatening to some people?” Thacker asks. “Nihilism poses difficult philosophical questions—questions that may have no answers.”

    To begin exploring such questions and their elusive answers, Thacker and students in his class Pessimism scour volumes both classic and contemporary: Nietzsche, Kafka, Camus, and his own In the Dust of This Planet. In it, Thacker describes a world of natural disasters, emerging pandemics, and the looming threat of extinction. Existence, he writes, is becoming increasingly “unthinkable.” In the classroom, his students together courageously, actively, and critically investigate what’s supposedly inconceivable. 

    These graduate students explore nihilist phenomena through the lens of the horror genre. According to Thacker, whether it’s a slasher flick, a black-metal dirge, or a story by Edgar Allan Poe, “you typically have characters who begin in a place where they think they know about the meaning of existence, and who by the end have no idea.” According to Thacker, these characters come to a sobering realization: “that there might not be a purpose to things, or to life, or to existence, or to the cosmos … that it’s arbitrary and an accident.” Therein lies the aversion to nihilism: Knowing that your life has no meaning can be scary. Still, pessimism is a philosophical position that cannot be automatically dismissed as simply a “bad attitude”—a conclusion at which the larger culture does not easily arrive. 

    So Thacker looked on with surprise and interest as young writers (True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto has taken cues from Thacker’s books) and designers (the title In The Dust of This Planet was printed on fashions worn by  Jay Z and  model Lily Collins) took this idea and ran with it.

     

    Jay Z’s stylist, June Ambrose, points to her desire for apparel to illuminate the world, especially when matched with certain ideas or philosophies. “I knew I needed something epic but effortless… . I needed it to say something.” Combining an austere leather jacket with Thacker’s title, In the Dust of This Planet, the look Ambrose assembled for Jay Z and Beyoncé’s video Run, seemed to underscore a nihilistic theme bubbling beneath the surface of public consciousness. “There was something very menacing about it,” Ambrose says, “something going on that was paralleling the end of an era with the beginning of something new, like what now? These are the whispers that you hear.” Ambrose alludes to the idea of impending apocalypse and a collective desire for a new political order—all run through a philosophical yet accessible filter by Thacker with his words “In the Dust of This Planet.”

    In Thacker’s book, time, space, and theory converge in a perfect storm, bringing In the Dust of This Planet to the cultural forefront. Whether the next two volumes of the Horror of Philosophy will be as popular as the first remains to be seen. Thacker is sure of one thing, though: The public response to his book is a nice but fleeting surprise. He knows he doesn’t have much control over of what the public does with his writings. “One thing you learn when you write a book and send it out is that it has a life of its own,” Thacker says. “It’s open to interpretation.”

    The New School, in its critical exploration of modern philosophy, is a force of new inquiry, insight, and pop influence. Be a Force of New.

×