Jad Abumrad: This is Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab, the podcast. Robert is out of town today. Actually, his son is getting married so it's just me. I thought in this podcast I'd wander a little bit. I'm going to start with a conversation that Brooke Gladstone and I-- this is Brooke from On The Media, that she and I had with my brother-in-law, Eugene.
Eugene Thacker: I am Eugene Thacker. I am an author and professor at The New School in New York city.
Jad: We talked about this very weird thing that happened to Eugene and I asked Brooke to join me because it just felt like her story.
Brooke Gladstone: I've been wearing black since I was 13.
Jad: I just want to point out that the two of you are head to toe in black right now. In any case, to set it up, Eugene is a hardcore scholar of philosophy and he writes these books that sometimes can be a little dense. He'll use words like exegesis and ratiocination. The family joke is that he writes books for no one.
Eugene: I think the joke started out, I write books that nobody reads. Then after a slow long period of acceptance, I started to think, "Well, maybe I should write books for no one to read," and just embraced that.
Jad: Meaning, at a certain point if you do this work you have to ask yourself--
Eugene: If you knew that this would not be published, would you still write it? How committed are you?
Jad: He decided he was committed. He would write it no matter what. The story begins a couple of years ago.
Eugene: In 2011.
Jad: Eugene writes this book--
Eugene: Called In The Dust Of This Planet.
Brooke: In The Dust Of This Planet.
Jad: It's a hard book to describe, but if you had to sum it up in a sentence.
Eugene: It's about the end of the world.
Jad: Not in the Hollywood sense. It's darker than that.
Brooke: Your hypothesis is the greatest horror is that nothing exists and nothing matters. The world that we live in, that we define in terms of humanity, doesn't care about us.
Eugene: What in philosophy is often referred to as nihilism or pessimism, that there might not be a purpose to things or to your life or to our existence or to the cosmos. There might not be an order to things. We might not be here for a reason. This all might be purely arbitrary in an accident.
Jad: That there's no inherent meaning to anything.
Eugene: That it just doesn't matter.
Jad: This is what Nietzsche called--
Eugene: The most difficult thought.
Jad: In the book, Eugene traces this idea through all of these different horror movies from slasher films to more supernatural horror and also music. At one point, he goes into this deconstruction of how different types of black metal deal with this thought.
Eugene: I don't know. It's a way of thinking I've always found really intriguing and ironically inspiring.
Brooke: Are you a pessimist.
Eugene: On my better days.
Brooke: Are you a nihilist?
Eugene: Not as much as I should be.
Jad: Eugene writes this book in 2011. It is dark. It is dense. He writes it, as he says, for no one and as expected, beyond a few philosophy types, no one really pays attention. He keeps his head down teaching, writing, but then some things happened. 2014, the show True Detective comes along, becomes a big hit. At the center of the show is this character, Rust Cohle, this Louisiana detective who is one dark dude.
He goes on these rants about how there's no order in the world, how humans are just this accident. We have to deal with that.
Prema: I just remember watching it and being like, wow.
Jad: That's Eugene's wife, Prema Murthy, my sister-in-law.
Jad: I was like, "This replicates so many conversations that we've had in the car."
Eugene: She's like, "Were they listening in on us?"
Prema: Yeah, it was eerie.
Jad: Prema goes online, clicks around.
Prema: All of a sudden, I see this article about the True Detective director--
Jad: It was an article where actually the writer of the show, Nick Pizzolatto, was asked, "How did you create that character of the nihilist police detective?" He lists a bunch of things he was reading at the time.
Prema: Included in that list was Eugene.
Eugene: To which I was like, "Cool." At least one person's reading the book.
Eugene: I really just try to keep my head to the ground and just keep writing, just doing what I'm doing.
Jad: Then things got weirder. Let's pull up the Lucky magazine. Let's see if we can find it. A short time later, Prema is flipping through this fashion magazine.
Eugene: Lucky magazine and there was a spread with this actress.
Jad: Lily Collins, 25-year-old actress.
Eugene: Who I'd never heard of.
Jad: Pretty big right now. She's standing on a street corner.
Eugene: Dressed up and all of this goth makeup and clothing.
Jad: In the photo, she is wearing Eugene's book on her chest.
Eugene: She had on, in one of the shots, a sweatshirt that had the cover of the book.
Jad: In the Dust of This Planet. Big letters right on her chest.
Prema: I was just like, "No way."
Eugene: It was definitely, "What the fuck [beep]?" [chuckles]
Prema: This is crazy. She's just casually wearing my husband's book cover.
Eugene: I don't know. Again, I didn't react to but it was just strange.
Jad: Turns out a Norwegian artist had made a painting of the book, that image had gotten picked up by a fashion label and turned into some very expensive clothes.
Eugene: I write books for no one to read so obviously, I'm not pulling in a lot of royalties on these but-
Jad: Eugene says he's not going to sue.
Eugene: I'm not going to sue or take any legal action or really do anything about it.
Jad: He says that's not why he writes. Okay, so that happened but then it gets weirder still. One day, when my wife Karla Murthy is online, this is the day that Jay Z and Beyoncé announced they're going to do this big international tour. Karla's watching the video that they released to promote that tour, sort of a fake movie trailer.
Karla: It says On the Run, it's all flashy guns, fire, hookers.
Jad: It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to me. It's some Bonnie & Clyde thing, I think. They're running from someone and you're not quite sure who. Beyoncé is in a wedding dress.
Karla: She's got a veil on.
Jad: She's shooting semi-automatic weapons in her wedding dress, cut to car chases, cut to money flying everywhere, but at exactly 37 seconds in--
Karla: Of course, [unintelligible 00:07:17]
Jad: Almost there. Go back, go back, go back.
Karla: [crosstalk] It's like you're making me think too fast.
Jad: You see Jay Z turn, stick a giant gun out to his right and he is wearing Eugene's book. Right there on his back, In the Dust of This Planet. Now, this is the point at which I was like, "Okay, what do we make of this?" Could it be that Eugene is no longer writing books for no one? That somehow, he has become a conduit for this idea that we all, in that subterranean way that pop music operates, that we all are channeling right now. That was my thought.
Eugene: Yes. No, I think that's the question is whether this is something particular to the moment we're living in.
Jad: Eugene, his knee jerk reaction is--
Eugene: I think it could have been this cover or a million other covers.
Jad: No, this is just meaningless appropriation.
Eugene: I don't think there's anything more than that to me than it just looks like a cool phrase to go on a T-shirt to put on a golf girl on some photoshoot.
Brooke: Why is it cool?
Jad: My hunch is you might be right but you also might be wrong because of the answer that you're about to give to Brooke's question.
Eugene: It's cool, because some publicist-
Jad: This was the conversation I wanted to have, that's why I called Brooke. What is behind all of this nihilistic entertainment that's everywhere? Now, Brooke, for her part, agreed that Eugene probably is tapping into something.
Brooke: Yes, but is this unique to this moment? To that, I would say, no.
Jad: Really, you don't think this says anything about now?
Brooke: I think there are cycles in which the sense of meaninglessness comes out in sharper relief than other times, but you can identify them over and over again.
Simon Critchley: Yes, nihilism goes all the way back.
Jad: Brooke actually turned us on to this guy.
Simon: Simon Critchley. I'm the Hans Jonas Professor at The New School for Social Research.
Jad: Simon wrote an article that basically made the argument that nihilism is the basic credo of cool.
Simon: It's sexy, it's interesting.
Jad: It's been that way forever.
Simon: Oh, I've got the best thing for you, you'll love this. It's a Russian word.
Jad: He said the word really got its pop in 1862. This is 150 years ago.
Simon: There's a novel by Turgenev called Fathers and Sons.
Jad: In the novel, the son who's the nihilist, turns to his conservative dad and he says--
Simon: "We base our conduct on what we recognize as useful. In these days, the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate and so we repudiate everything." The father says, "Everything?" "Everything," with indescribable composure. That's the nihilist moment, everything goes.
Jad: Simon says roughly from that point on, you see young people glom on to this idea again and again as a way to say no to the older generation, or to just what's happening in the world. For example, after World War I, you had tens of millions of people dead, this lost generation that was confused and disgusted at what just happened. Out of that says, Brooke, you get Dada.
Brooke: I want to pull up here on the computer. The manifesto of Tristan Tzara.
Jad: He was one of the founders of the Dada movement.
Brooke: He says, "Dada means nothing. Everything one looks at is false. Dada, abolition of memory. Dada, abolition of archaeology. Dada, abolition of profits. dada, abolition of the future."
Jad: After World War II, she and Simon say you had similar movements in the '70s and '80s. With the threat of nuclear annihilation, you get punk rock and it just keeps going.
Simon: Pop Culture, at least since I was a kid has always been deeply nihilistic.
Jad: All right, so it's nothing new but when I ran Simon through the Eugene jacket situation, and then I asked him, "Is there something different about today's nihilism versus nihilisms of the past? Is there something more potent about it?" Without hesitation he said--
Simon: I'd say yes.
Andy Mills: Based on what?
Jad: That's producer Andy Mills who was with me during the interview.
Simon: Well, you can get--
Jad: Simon says it was more of a gut feeling based on this class that he taught last year with Eugene oddly enough. I didn't actually know they knew each other but they had taught this class together.
Simon: The seminar that we did in the fall last year was one of those rare seminars, we're teaching mysticism. Nobody teaches mysticism. Really obscure stuff, we're doing Desert
Fathers, medieval female mystics.
Jad: This is early Christianity.
Simon: Neither of us are religious.
Jad: He says they started the seminar not really expecting much by talking about how in the 4th century AD--
Simon: There was this city, Alexandria.
Jad: This is near Egypt.
Simon: Alexandria was a lot like Manhattan. It was an offshore Island. It was a colony of a former power.
Jad: Roman Empire.
Simon: It's the seat of all culture and all learning in the ancient world. At a certain point, in the 4th century, people start to leave. They start to leave and go into the desert, people
wander off, and they seem to want something else. The city just doesn't do it anymore.
Simon: It's corrupt. It's broken. It's sinful.
Jad: He said crime was rampant, pollution, and so people just started to wander off into the desert and live in these caves.
Simon: These intense forms of ascetic practice became--
Jad: You had these women-
Simon: Who were not educated because women couldn't be educated.
Jad: Who were so enraptured with Christ that they began-
Simon: Hurting themselves, throwing themselves into icy rivers, jumping into ovens. The body is something which you're trying to strip away in order that you can free the capacity
Andy: That's a classic mystic idea? The body is just getting in the way, I want to go soul to soul with God?
Simon: Exactly, but the premise of that, again, is that the world is a field of ruins.
Jad: He says what really struck him is that as he was talking about all this, he would glance out at the students, and he would notice this look in their eyes.
Simon: I just felt that in the room, this deep need was being fulfilled by these strange mystics.
Jad: He said the students were just in it in a way that almost never happens when you're teaching.
Simon: We were not saving souls, but it was hitting something really, really deep.
Jad: What exactly? Do you think they were starting to form the thought of wandering into the desert so to speak?
Simon: Yes, I think there's a sense of what you do do? Secede, walk away, that's where a lot of people are at.
Jad: I ask for what's behind it all. He says, "Just turn on the news."
Reporter: A video showing the beheading of a second American journalist has now been verified.
Reporter 2: Disease experts say this is turning into one of the longest, deadliest outbreaks ever.
Reporter 3: The girls were gang raped and strangled.
Reporter 4: Once again, it is mostly children we're seeing brought into this hospital.
Simon: In the world I grew up in made sense. It was completely crazy, mutually assured destruction, but it made sense. You could understand it in very simple terms, there was
United States, there was the Soviet Union. We were going to be eviscerated, that was clear but you knew what the balance of power was.
Jad: You're nostalgic for mutually assured destruction. Is that what's happening now?
Simon: It seems a much simpler world.
Andy: Well, you at least knew who to blame for it, right?
Jad: That's Andy again.
Andy Mills: I think that's the thing. You look at the Cold War, and you could see specifically like, "[beep] you you Soviets." "[beep] you Americans." "[beep] the nukes."
Simon: That's right.
Andy: Now what am I supposed to say [beep] you too? I'm saying [beep] you to-
Andy: -carbon emissions.
Jad: Speaking of which today. No doubt, one of the reasons for the current gloom is that we are in the middle of an uncomfortable shift in how we talk about climate change. This was made official. When the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report where for the first time, they stopped using the language of prevention and shifted to the language of adaptation.
In other words, hundreds of scientists and policymakers, this is the world's top organization for assessing climate change, were now saying, "We can't stop it, it's inevitable."
David Victor: Now we need to talk about dealing with the mass that is now on our doorstep.
Jad: That's David Victor,
David: Professor of international relations at a University of California at San Diego.
Jad: He is one of the authors of the report.
David: When the IPCC first began back in the late 1980s, you could imagine that people would take the climate change problem seriously, they would start to control emissions, and then over a period of decades, climate would stop changing. Instead what's happened is people have talked a lot about climate change, but they haven't actually done much to control emissions.
Jad: Now he says we're all in this strange middle ground where we're trying to find the language to say why it's important to keep working at this while at the same time admitting some degree of failure.
David: That's the inevitability that you see in the new reports and the reports are bending over backwards to try and find ways to be optimistic. The report says, "If you put into place all of these technologies and international agreements, we could still stop warming at two degrees." My own assessment is that the kinds of actions you'd need to do that are so heroic that we're not going to see them on this planet.
Jad: All of which reminded me of that True Detective moment.
Rust: I consider myself a realist, but in philosophical terms, I'm what's called a pessimist.
Martin Hart: What's that mean?
Jad: Pessimists, like nihilists agree there's no meaning, they're just a little more mopey about it. Less likely to do something.
Rust: It means I'm bad at parties.
Jad: I mean, is that where we're all headed? In a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 76% of people 18 and over weren't confident that the future is going to be brighter than the past, which brings me back to Brooke's question.
Brooke: Why is it cool?
Jad: Call it nihilism, pessimism, whatever, shouldn't it be depressing? Why would you want to put a phrase like in the dust of this planet, a phrase that deliberately negates the person wearing it, why would you want to put it on your chest or on your back? Since it was Jay-Z's jacket, which was in a way, the catalyst for this whole podcast, we decided to talk to him, sort of. That's coming up.
?Andy: That sounds great.
Jad: Hey, this is Jad. This is Radiolab. We ended up in the flow of things as we're trying to figure out like in the dust of this planet, why is that cool? Why isn't that just scary and depressing? We ended up with--
June Ambrose: They want to talk to me. Why?
Jad: That's a good question. I'm talking to this lady who it turns out was the person who made the decision to put it on Jay-Z's back.
June: I should say my name, I guess. My name is June Ambrose. I've been a costume designer for 22 years, 23 this year. I've worked with everyone from Luther Vandross to Puffy, to Sean, to Mariah Carey, Busta Rhymes, Mary J Blige to Alicia keys, Dave Matthews Band, the Backstreet Boys, Kelly Ripa, Kim Catrall, R Kelly, Jamie Foxx, Missy Elliott. Did you do the Missy with the balloon?
Jad: That was you?
Jad: Of course, Jay-Z and Beyoncé. That's like culture, basically.
June: I was responsible for some of that [unintelligible 00:19:25] stuff.
Jad: It occurred to me and Andy and I during the interview that June has probably influenced the fashion sense of a significant portion of the human beings on this planet. She was very clear that a costume is more than just a costume.
June: It's like a conversation without words.
Jad: That really what she's doing when she styles someone is whispering to all the people that are going to watch the videos, come in contact with the billboards, go to the concerts. I don't have to talk to you, but I can create this conversation with a pair of pants and how they fall, and how they fit, and the texture, and color, and feel.
Jad: She says with Jay-Z, for that video, she knew she needed something epic.
June: But effortless. I knew I wanted a biker jacket because it was a motorcycle scene, but I knew that I just couldn't give him a black one. I needed to say some thing, feel like something. We were on a hunt-
Jad: Her and her assistant went to dozens of places.
June: To [unintelligible 00:20:22] , studios, showrooms.
Jad: Looking at all these leather jackets.
June: It's like finding a needle in a haystack.
Jad: Nothing was right.
June: But then-
Jad: They saunter into this one place.
June: Black Denim.
Jad: This place that does high-end grunge. They're flipping through the racks when she sees it, the jacket, those words.
June: That was it. I knew it. I said, "This is what I need." It was just perfect.
Jad: Question was why. At this point, I hadn't really told her the whole backstory. I pulled out a screen capture from the video, this one where you see Jay-Z standing in the desert
shot from behind, in the dust of this planet on his back and he's pointing this really long, dirty Harry gun off to his right sort of up like he's about to shoot the sun.
June: You think he's about to shoot the sun.
Jad: I printed it out because it's just got this billboard quality to it, right? Here it is.
June: I have a really cool one on my phone, too.
Jad: Let's just look at this for a second. Why did you choose that jacket?
June: It's something very menacing about it. It's almost like the aftermath, that there was something going on that was paralleling the end of an era, the beginning of something
Jad: She says in the back of her head, she was thinking about how the music industry might be dying.
June: It's definitely in a place where it's like, "What now?" You can hear it in the music.
Jad: You know if this is the biggest tour in history, really, what now?
June: These are the whispers that you hear.
Jad: She says one of the loudest whispers was super simple. Here's a guy, massive pop star.
June: A sovereign.
Jad: He's in the desert, it's about to go down. The end of the world is literally on his back-
June: It was almost as if he didn't even know that was on his back. You know what I mean? It's like that was the afterthought.
Jad: Like, "Oh, yes, the world's ending. I don't care."
June: Going down and stuff.
Jad: In other words?
June: He wasn't afraid.
Jad: He wasn't afraid.
June: He wasn't afraid.
Jad: You know what? When we talk about whispers, that's what I get from it. Now that you said that, it's not so much I don't give a [beep]. It's I'm not afraid.
Jad: We all have to leave the planet. Everybody has their day. What you work on is not being afraid when you have to leave.
Jad: We'll get it to you. That'll be cool. Thank you.
June: This was actually refreshing [unintelligible 00:22:53] .
Jad: Walking out of that interview, this was by the way after we had told her that the phrase on Jay-Z's back was lifted from a book written by my brother-in-law, Eugene.
June: Oh, wow. Now, I need to get the book and I need to get it to Jay.
Jad: Which he was very interested to know. Can we do that?
June: Yes, let's do that.
Jad: And we did send him the book. Haven't heard back.
June: Oh, my God.
Jad: Anyhow, walking out of there. I kept thinking, "Is that what this is all about?" That all this pop nihilism around us is not about tearing down power structures or embracing
nothingness. It's just, "Look at me. Lookat how brave I am."
Brooke: That I can wear it on a T-shirt.
Eugene: I would go with that. This is why as you pointed out from Dada to punk, this is a recurring motif of how badass you are in facing mortality.
Brooke: Bingo badass, that's what I was thinking.
Eugene: I think that that is nothing more than a posture. It's all fine when you're 18 to wear that T-shirt but when you're in your 50s dealing with cancer, maybe then is when you
really have to confront those things. It's simply a posture, and that's why it's in pop culture.
Simon: [unintelligible 00:24:05] cynical response would be to say, why we love nihilism in pop culture is that it saves us having to be burdened with it.
Jad: Simon Critchley again.
Simon: It saves us from feeling it. We can enjoy it in our rooms, we can get off on it, and then we let it go and we go back to work.
Jad: Simon says you don't have to be cynical about this if you don't want to be. Nietzsche, mister dark pessimist himself, had this idea about nihilism that it was just the beginning. That if you really dealt with it, took it in, accelerated it to its logical end, you could get to the other side, which he called-
Simon: A revaluation of values, some new way of thinking about who we are as moral creatures, and that's where I am. Love is that capacity which can see through that.
Jad: That he suspects is why his students were so interested in those mystics, because they had found a way through.
Simon: These people, these mystics, have got the uncompromising commitment to something like love.
Jad: The fact that they were ready to go all the way to negate even their own bodies for that love.
Simon: Right. In a world where love has been reduced to Tinder exchanges, if that's the hell that you're living in as a 25-year-old, then you're going to read these mistakes I think, "I want what she's having."
Simon: I'll take what she's having.
Jad: Burn my flesh.
Simon: That's right, burn my flesh.
Jad: You could argue, why not? That Jay-Z and Beyoncé, they've got a little bit of that going on. Part of what's made this tour so big, biggest tour ever actually, is that it's like this grand love story.
June: I'm with the love of my life so it's like it works.
Jad: I have a fantasy that Beyoncé and Jay-Z will do this tour, and they will go off into the desert and they'll live in a little hut, like this monastic existence together in love. A new Age of Aquarius will begin, starting with the two of them.
June: That's beautiful.
Andy: The loudest mic drop.
Jad: Any chance of that?
June: Well, you can really hear me sip on that [unintelligible 00:26:20]
Andy: That was a nice sound.
Jad: That was your answer?
June: Pina colada on the beach.
Andy: Maybe a perfect response to Jad's question.
Brooke: Jad, I can hear that you're going to take a lot of this stuff and you're going to look at the current moment and see how this idea is expressing itself. This made me want to want to go back and see when and where and how it's been expressed all along. I'm delighted to be on this, and I'm going to be delighted to have you on our show in a couple of weeks.
Brooke: Yes, we want you to come on after I've put it together.
Jad: I'd Love that.
Brooke: We're pulling you in, after.
Jad: Beautiful. I'm game.
Brooke: Okay. [chuckles]
Jad: Thank you for being game for this.
Brooke: Thank you.
Jad: Look for On The Media's take on nihilism in a couple of weeks. Big thanks to producer, Andy Mills, who in process of helping me put together this podcast began to say things like--
Andy: The other day I thought it was a sense of I saw this ladybug. My friends and I, we were watching this ladybug crawl around my shoe. Then it started to crawl up my leg, got caught in my leg hair, fell back down to the shoe. We were all like, "Oh, that's life." That's it, man. We're all just bugs crawling around on a goddamn shoe.
Jad: He was totally serious. Special thanks to the Murthy tribe and to Zer0 Books and of course to Eugene Thacker, who even though he harbors no redemptive fantasies about human beings whatsoever, is an awesome dude. This piece is an homage to him, one of the most committed writers I know, also happens to be my brother-in-law.
If you would like to read In The Dust of This Planet, and I actually do highly recommend it, it super fascinating, go to our website, radiolab.org and we'll link you to it. I'm Jad Abumrad. Thanks for listening.
[pause 00:29:10] [silence]
Jad: If you're still listening, here's a little something extra. While we were putting together this podcast, we bumped into the band Liturgy and this particular tune that I want to play for you now. Now, this tune it's called Generation, I'm obsessed with it. It's from Liturgy off their album Aesthetica which is from Thrill Jockey, thrilljockey.com. First of all, attached to it is a manifesto, I'll just quote a bit.
Transcendental black metal is in fact nihilism. However, it is a double nihilism, a final nihilism. A once and for all negation of the entire series of negations. With this final note we arrive at a vertiginous affirmation, an affirmation that is white knuckled, terrified, unsentimental, and courageous. Here it is Generation by Liturgy.
[music] [music] [music]
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