“Mellow Nihilism”: A Review of Gianni Vattimo’s Nihilism and Emancipation

By Robert Savino Oventile


Vattimo, Gianni. Nihilism and Emancipation: Ethics, Politics, & Law. Trans. William McCuaig. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.


When will the citizens of the United States finally elect an openly gay death-of-God nihilist to high public office? Europeans saw fit to elect the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo to the European Parliament; he served from 1999 until 2004. During those years, Vattimo wrote many of the essays collected in Nihilism and Emancipation. An out-and-proud gay Catholic who welcomes God’s death, Vattimo argues for European unification to proceed by way of socialistic policies with a nihilist orientation. But do not be too sure the United States would need to change beyond recognition for Vattimo to attain citizenship and to have a shot at becoming, say, a US senator. Vattimo’s mellow nihilism seeks emancipation as societal and governmental recognition of cultural diversity. Regrettably, Vattimo’s mellowness leaves the uncanny aside, tranquilizing nihilism.


Contributing a foreword, Richard Rorty alerts readers to the influence of Nietzsche and Heidegger on Vattimo’s understanding of nihilism. Over a decades-long encounter with these thinkers, Vattimo has reached several interlocking conclusions. The “death of God” Nietzsche announced amounts to the death, not of deity per se, but of the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity of the Western philosophical tradition. This god served as the template for various metaphysical foundations of truth, each some particular being honored as existence’s ground. The metaphysical god’s death means the slow demise or erosion of any metaphysical principle acting as truth’s foundation. This devaluation and wearing away of the “highest” values Nietzsche called nihilism. Nietzsche welcomed nihilism as Europe’s uncanny guest, at once utterly foreign as belief in nothing and completely at home as belief in a nothingness: the metaphysical god.


Nietzsche found belief in the nothing the metaphysical god is and the concomitant philosophical tradition highly nihilistic in another sense. If the god of metaphysics and his philosophical progeny are actually nothing, and if, in myriad small and large ways, societies enforce sacrifice (of life, of pleasure, of freedom, and so on) to a supreme being or to a metaphysical principle, then the most horrid violence occurs for nothing. Vattimo argues that Europe brought such violence to Asia, Africa, and the Americas through the colonialism that legitimized itself as a civilizing mission sanctioned by metaphysics’ god. Idolatrously sacrificing oneself or others to the nothingness one deifies (Christian Civilization, the Reich, the Great Leap Forward, the Ownership Society, whatever) defines the reactive nihilism of metaphysics as distinct from the active pursuit of metaphysics’ nihilistic dissolution. For Vattimo, metaphysics is violence, and the weakening of metaphysics provides an opportunity to lessen violence. Vattimo heralds metaphysics’ weakening as a “‘nihilistic’ process […] in which metaphysical Being, meaning violence, consumes itself” (Nihilism, 94).


Vattimo references Heidegger to argue that no simple or immediate exit from metaphysics exists. For Heidegger, the violence of metaphysics culminates by reducing being to quantities as effortlessly available for consumption as digital photos a mouse-click away. Existence’s disclosure as an exploitable quantity and flattening out as a “world picture” are two aspects of what Heidegger calls the Ge-Stell (“framework”), at once being’s contemporary exposé and perhaps terminal oblivion. Something like the logic driving the amok technology in The Matrix, the Ge-Stell acts as the operating system of a planetary regime bent challenging existence forth as totally calculable and representable. Catastrophic environmental degradation and Yosemite Valley’s “management” as a picture-perfect tourist destination; cattle’s bio-technological reprogramming to maximize beef yields and the statistical mapping of children’s dreams to manufacture advertising images that boost hamburger sales: the Ge-Stell infiltrates all regions of existence and threatens to overlook (supervise and forget) being past recovery. But in a late writing, Identity and Difference, Heidegger suggests that in the grimmest extreme of the Ge-Stell flashes an opening to being’s retrieval, the event of a post-metaphysical dispensation. While Heidegger concludes, argues Vattimo, that no simple leap out of the Ge-Stell is possible, Heidegger hints that the weakening of being in the Ge-Stell may eventually and paradoxically allow for the lifting of being’s current near oblivion (“Optimistic,” 38-39).


Taking this hint, Vattimo pursues what he calls “weak thought.” Resigned to imprisonment in metaphysics, this thinking hopes gradually to bend metaphysics toward dissolution. Weak thought questions “strong” claims, truth assertions brandishing as their ultimate warrants anachronistic, termite-ridden metaphysical cudgels. The trick to weak thought is to work strategically with the erosion of foundations rather than to react futilely against this nihilistic trend. Religious fundamentalists, rightist politicians, and nostalgic graspers after fading metaphysical reality generally: these forces stand in emancipation’s way. Vattimo argues that to counter reactionary philosophical arguments, governmental policies, and social movements with claims that emancipation better corresponds to some foundational truth only buttresses the roadblocks to liberation. Rather, in any given situation, Vattimo, practicing weak thought, searches out the nihilistic crowbar useful to help further dismantle cracking foundations and to bring forward emancipation-friendly political alternatives. In mood and attitude, these alternatives embody a mellow nihilism: “comfortingly soft, warm, and rich in color or tone and lacking any harsh, brash, or jarring quality […] good-humored, tolerant, and approachable, especially as a result of long experience or a relaxed atmosphere ” (Encarta World English Dictionary).


The troubling aspects of Vattimo’s take on nihilism as libratory emerge in the privilege Vattimo grants Christianity. Named kenosis by the apostle Paul, the emptying out of divine power and the abasement God undergoes by incarnating as Christ point toward the crucifixion—God’s weakening unto death. An irretrievable accession to weakness, the kenosis prompts Vattimo to argue that among the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Christianity alone smoothly joins with nihilism as metaphysical being’s weakening. This weakening complexly solicits the so-called “return of religion.” On the one hand, weakening sets off fundamentalism. As attempts to reverse the attrition of metaphysical truth claims in the name of a “strong” identity, religious fundamentalisms are thoroughly postmodern phenomena. But, on the other hand, the weakening process unravels Christianity’s dominance by a “strong” notion of metaphysical being, allowing for kenotic Christianity’s return. Vattimo argues that kenosis defines Christianity’s authentic message and logic. This logic orients Christianity toward fulfillment as attaining the secular. Only insofar as the Christian god weakens does the secular emerge. The end or culmination/cancellation of Christianity, the secular opens a social arena favorable to cultural and religious “diversity.” Neither Judaism nor Islam, but only kenotic Christianity bears this end within it. Kenotic Christianity alone fosters a secular “lay space” of pluralistic dialogue.

In seeking a “liberal, tolerant, and democratic society,” Vattimo declines impartiality about religion: “the revival of religion must be subjected to philosophical criticism” whenever it “betrays” being’s weakening (Nihilism, 19; After, 23). Kenotic Christianity and “weak thought” converge in conducting this criticism of the Abrahamic religions’ fundamentalist manifestations. For Vattimo, any religion must undergo weakening to become a welcome contributor of diversity to the civic life of secular society. The Christian god’s “incarnation” as Christ enacts a “denial of other mythologies” as fostering a violent, “strong” sense of identity (Nihilism, 57). But the incarnation is “also and paradoxically their legitimation, since it reveals a relation of intimacy between God and the world that at the very least makes them credible too (if God made himself human, he may also have taken the form of a cat or a sacred cow)” (57). Unbeknownst to themselves, ancient Egyptians worshipped and contemporary Hindus worship the Christian god. For Vattimo’s frank monotheism, other gods are unthinkable, only manifestations of the Christian god.


The touchstone indicating whether a religion is “credible,” kenotic Christianity selects which believers are welcome to the multicultural table and under what conditions, with inclusion operating as exclusion through the imposition of an exasperating religious political correctness. While reading the following sentences from Vattimo, try to imagine being an Islamic woman forced to choose between her education and her religion:


[The] prohibition of the chador in French public schools can be justified precisely because in that context it is an affirmation of a strong identity, a kind of profession of fundamentalism. By contrast, in our society the crucifix has become an almost oblivious—and hence unobtrusive—sign, which allows for the continued existence of a lay orientation of which it [the crucifix] only underscores the religious origin within the context of […] secularization. It is precisely by appealing to this generic meaning—one that offers openings and possibilities—that the crucifix can claim its right to be accepted as a universal symbol in a lay society. (After, 101-102)


Vattimo outpaces President George W. Bush, who has yet to consider the threat terrorist clothing poses. The freedom of attire is not among the “openings and possibilities” the “crucifix” “offers” in its “generic meaning” as the “oblivious” and “unobtrusive” “sign” of religion’s weakening into secularization. How “unobtrusive” or “universal” a “symbol” is the crucifix in targeting as “fundamentalist” an Islamic student who wishes to maintain her religion after immigrating to Europe? However, if such a student were somehow to prove that she wears a chador deracinated from her familial, social, and religious life, then the chador would be permissible, something the more daring non-Islamic students might wear to exhibit their “tolerance.” Acceptance will arrive when wearing the chador weakens into a “cultural” gesture detached from the ethical yes’s and no’s that render Islam irreducibly distinct from kenotic Christianity and its version of the secular, which Vattimo links to consumerism. One begins to understand that for Vattimo the term “fundamentalism” refers to a religious practice or belief that resists assimilation to the ethical-political norms of liberal consumer capitalism.


Vattimo’s stance toward fundamentalism closely parallels American-style diversity ideology. To civilize the world was European colonialism’s mission; to make the world safe for diversity is USA-centric globalization’s mission. Diversity ideology etiolates or whitens out religions, traditional social practices, and ways of life generally as the prerequisite for their inclusion as diverse. The term “culture” already signals this etiolation, which deprives a life-world of the ethical force its particular yes’s and no’s entail insofar as they give unease to or antagonize the mavens and mangers of diversity. Only when a life-world becomes something a tourist may enjoy without having to accept the discipline of its yes’s and no’s does that life-world, patronized as a “culture,” become tolerable as diverse. Vattimo explains that, in contemporary societies where “we are more and more likely to encounter ethical and religious positions and cultural traditions unlike” our own, “the best stance to adopt is that of a ‘tourist’ in a history park” (Nihilism, 56). Spiriting away “strong” claims to distinction and ironing out antagonistic elements, the domestication of life-worlds as consumable aesthetic artifacts will bring peace:


The variety of lifestyles and the diversity of ethical codes will be able to coexist without bloody clashes only if they are considered as, precisely, styles, not reciprocally exclusive but compatible, like artistic styles within an art collection—and for that matter within a museum, although the word has an alarming sound because it seems to reduce forms of life to dead things recovered from the past. Fear of this kind of ‘supermarket’ of ethics, religions, and visions of reality […] can be unmasked […] as a residual neurotic need for paternal authority, reassuring and punitive. (58)


The British Museum and analogous European institutions are inseparable from European colonialism; Vattimo’s “diversity” “museum” as “supermarket” is inseparable from USA-centric global capitalism. When Vattimo casts the resistance to this “supermarket” as a retrograde psychological need for authority, one might retort by paraphrasing Walter Benjamin: the postmodern “supermarket” of diverse cultures assumes yet dissembles the barbarism of the postmodern market economy.


Though diversity ideology reigns across the US political spectrum, Vattimo’s nihilism resembles what North Americans call “being a liberal.” For Vattimo, the “enemy of liberty” typically “thinks [one] can and should preach final and definitive truth,” while the friends of emancipation are the diversity-appreciating tourists who accept that “the salvation of our postmodern civilization can only be an esthetic salvation” (56). Vattimo defines emancipation as making available the aesthetic enjoyment of the world’s “diverse” heritages to larger population segments. Again, the analogy to tourism applies. Granted, sipping Chianti in a Florence trattoria while contemplating Renaissance architecture touches on the heavenly. But should one confuse such experiences with salvation? Vattimo articulates his faith in a tourist afterlife prefigured on earth as an online museum of “diverse” “cultural” artifacts: “Eternal life is nothing but the ‘perfect’ enjoyment of meanings and spiritual forms generated by the history of humanity” (After, 55). Vattimo claims that any viable secular notion of emancipation can only be an analogue of the Christian believer’s liberation from terrestrial existence into eternal tourism (54-56). Heaven or emancipation arrives as the contemplation of diversity, an aesthetic experience free of the antagonism, inassimilable difference, or alterity of the diverse. Diversity ideology posits this utopia. Emancipation as living justly with others is something quite distinct from what Vattimo calls “salvation.”


Vattimo insists that emancipation as aesthetic contemplation’s socialization assumes a less inequitable allocation of the “basic requirements of survival,” but this caveat remains unconvincing, especially because Vattimo shuns the militancy necessary to achieve temporarily even modest redistribution (Nihilism, 128). Despite lip-service to the slogan, “‘from each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs,’” Vattimo boils socialism down to consumer capitalism plus diversity: “And ‘socialism’ […] has to mean a conception of the state as guarantor of the multiplicity of the communities that compose it, communities in which individuals confer recognition on one another” (128, 129). This “‘socialism’” will halt the “spreading populist violence” challenging globalization, diminish the “violent impulse of revolt against [capitalism’s] global hegemony,” and therefore “combat the evils of populism and social disorder” (121, 126, 127). And Vattimo is not shy about the use of force internationally. Vattimo wants the “left […] to get over its ‘obligatory’ pacifism. There are no just wars,” but “there are legitimate wars and legitimate uses of force” (111).


Acting out the Ge-Stell, global capitalism enflames what Vattimo calls “evils”: fundamentalist violence as well as populist violence against globalization (127). Vattimo would quash these symptoms of globalization yet pursues “emancipation” through the saturation of tourist experience virtualized as aesthetic consumption, a hallmark of globalization. Vattimo hopes to divert the Ge-Stell toward emancipation, but the emancipation Vattimo articulates carries the Ge-Stell farther toward being’s oblivion. Vattimo’s emancipation forgets the being of the diverse in favor of world pictures of diversity. Emancipation from others overrides doing justice to others. Vattimo imagines a post-metaphysical dispensation that occurs clean of being-with, the minimal exposure to alterity Heidegger posits as inseparable from being. When emancipation lifts off as salvation, the etiolations of diversity crystallize into a divine world invulnerable to such exposure. Perpetually safe from and translucently clear of any tear, blemish, or jagged, unraveling edge marking exposure to others, the world pictures of diversity constitute an eternal realm free of being-with or finitude. Diversity ideology posits this hypostasis, belief in which facilitates sacrifice to the global economy. An opening to nihilism’s uncanniness would yield the nauseating vertigo of realizing that the salvation Vattimo locates in a far-off afterlife subsists nowhere else but intimately close to home in the celebrations of diversity that deafen the earthly tourist’s ears to inconsolable pleas for justice. Rendering nihilism compatible with a tourist ethos, mellowness occludes the uncanny. Rather than weakening the Ge-Stell, mellow nihilism comports with the Ge-Stell’s global extension.


Works Cited

Heidegger, Martin. Identity and Difference. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. New York: Harper, 1969.

Vattimo, Gianni. After Christianity. Trans. Luca D’Isanto. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

---. “Optimistic Nihilism.” Common Knowledge 1.3 (Winter 1992): 37–44.


© Robert Oventile 2006

Sobriquet Magazine #28 (September 2006)


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