Nihilism, Destruction, Negativity. Walter Benjamin and the ‘Organization of Pessimism’

Workshop at the Jan van Eyck Academie

Academieplein 1
6211 KM Maastricht
The Netherlands

Sunday, December 2, 2012, 11:00 – 19:00

11:00-11:30 Introduction, SAMI KHATIB (BERLIN/MAASTRICHT)

11:30-13:15 Panel 1: Walter Benjamin and the “Organization of Pessimism”
Speaker: BENJAMIN NOYS (CHICHESTER): “The Organization of Destruction”
Chair: tba

Lunch break

14:45-16:45 Panel 2: On the “Destructive Character”

Coffee Break

17:15-19:00 Panel 3: Nihilism
Speaker: ALEXI KUKULJEVIC (MAASTRICHT): “A Self-Annihilating Nothing”


“The destructive character does his job. It is only creative work that he avoids. Just as the creator seeks out solitude for himself, the destroyer must continuously surround himself with people, with witnesses to his efficacy.” (Walter Benjamin, 1931)

Equally repudiated by today’s neo-liberal, left-liberal, and neo-conservative ideologies, the legacy of nihilism takes the position of an “accursed share” (Georges Bataille). Although nihilism as a political, philosophical, and ethical concept can be traced back to the most influential strands of post-Nietzschean thought and modern continental philosophy, it retains a bad name. Contemporary philosophies of agency, creativity, and communitarianism all agree that nihilism eventually leads to defeatism, destruction, or violence. Nihilism thus is mostly associated with destructive anarchism, right-wing or left-wing extremism.

Against this lament, the workshop examines the question whether and to what extend we can think of nihilism as a liberating force of thought that is true to the modern capitalist experience of a world of “transcendental homelessness” (Georg Lukács). Is there a destructiveness, a non-sublatable negation, “a persistence of the negative” (Benjamin Noys) without which theory lacks its critical thrust and becomes all too easily digestible for contemporary ideologies of liberal capitalist activism?
Starting with Walter Benjamin, the workshop calls concepts of nihilism into question and elucidates possibilities of a negativity that is not limited to specific activities or attitudes (i.e. reluctance, refusal, or resistance). In 1937 Benjamin’s Parisian friend Georges Bataille asked: “If action is – as Hegel says – negativity, the question arises as to whether the negativity of one who has ‘nothing more to do’ disappears or remains in a state of ‘unemployed negativity’.” – Unemployed negativity, that is a non-symmetrical negativity, cannot be employed within the dialectic of position and negation. It designates a remaining negativity that resists any form of economic productivity. The workshop explores forms of subjectivity beyond agency that could embody this sort of unemployed negativity.

Benjamin’s name for the figure who has nothing to do, nothing than doing nothing, is the “destructive character” (1931). His or her ‘activity’ neither designates active creativity nor passive inertia, but is the inoperative operation of an annihilating defiguration [Entstaltung]. The unemployable surplus of this peculiar sort of negativity is not excessive or ferociously violent since it is fully self-content, immersed into its own activity. In contrast to the capitalist “creative destruction” (Joseph Schumpeter), defigurative negativity has no productive ends. It alludes to destruction as a “pure means” that interrupts, derails, dissolves productive means-end relations and introduces a site beyond the binary opposition of negativity and positivity. It renders visible a nothingness of creation that is less than zero without being simply negative.

For Benjamin the political counterpart of this defigurative negativity is pessimism. Against the optimist belief in progress and, as we could add today, ideologies of endless perfectibility, sustainability, and innovation, he called for an “organization of pessimism” (1929) that “expel[s] the moral metaphor from politics” and “discover[s] within the space of political action the one hundred per cent image-space [Bildraum].” The workshop will explore the political thresholds of this image-space.

The workshop is organized by Sami Khatib (Jan van Eyck Academie, Maastricht)

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