The Philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism,” Or How to Find Purpose in a Meaningless Universe

In one account of human affairs, an all-powerful deity rules over everything. Nothing can occur without the knowledge and sanction of the omnipotent creator god. In a much more recent iteration, we inhabit an unimaginably complex computer simulation, in which every thing—ourselves included—has been created by all-powerful programmers. The first scenario gives millions of people comfort, the second… well, maybe only a handful of cult-like Silicon Valley techo-futurists. But in either case, the question inevitably arises: how is it possible that there is any such thing as true freedom? The idea that free will is an illusion has haunted philosophical thought for at least a couple thousand years.

But in the existentialist view, the real fear is not that we may have too little freedom, but that we may have too much—indeed that we may have the ultimate freedom, that of conscious beings who appeared in the universe unbidden and by chance, and who can only determine for themselves what form and direction their being might take. This was the early view of Jean-Paul Sartre. “We are left alone, without excuse”—he famously wrote in his 1946 essay “Existentialism is a Humanism”—“This is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free.” Freedom is a burden; without gods, devils, or software engineers to fault for our actions, or any predetermined course of action we might take, each of us alone bears the full weight of responsibility for our lives and choices.




Emerging from comforting visions of humanity as the center of the universe—says the narrator in the video above from philosophical animation channel Kurzgesagt—“we learned that the twinkling lights are not shining beautifully for us, they just are. We learned that we are not at the center of what we now call the universe, and that it is much, much older than we thought.” We learned that we are alone in the cosmos, on a completely insignificant speck of space dust, more or less. Even the concepts we use to explain this overwhelming situation are totally arbitrary in the face of our profound ignorance. Add to this the problem of our infinitesimally brief lifespans and inevitable death and you’ve got the perfect recipe for existential dread.

For this condition, Kurzgesagt recommends a remedy: “Optimistic Nihilism,” a philosophy that posits ultimate freedom in the midst of, and solely enabled by, the utter meaninglessness of existence: “If our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles, then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is.” This is more or less a paraphrase of Sartre, who made virtually identical claims in what he called his “atheistic existentialism,” but with the added force in his “doctrine” that “there is no reality except in action… Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself.” We not only get to determine our purpose, he wrote, we have to do so, or we cannot be said to exist at all.

In the midst of this frighteningly radical freedom, Sartre saw the ultimate opportunity: to make of ourselves what we will. But this dizzying possibility may send us running back to comforting prefab illusions of meaning and purpose. How terrible, to have to decide for yourself the purpose of the entire universe, no? But the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism” goes on to expound a thesis similar to that of the Zen popularizer, Alan Watts, who has soothed many a case of existential dread with his response to the idea that we are somehow separate from the universe, either hovering above it or crushed beneath it. Humans are not, as Watts colorfully wrote, “isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.” Instead, as the video goes on, “We are as much the universe as a neutron star, or a black hole, or a nebula. Even better, actually, we are its thinking and feeling part, the sensory organs of the universe.”

Neither Sartre nor Watts, with their very different approaches to the same set of existential concerns, would likely endorse the tidy summation offered by the philosophy of “Optimistic Nihilism.” But just as we would be foolish to expect a six-minute animated video to offer a complete philosophy of life, we would be painfully naïve to think of freedom as a condition of comfort and ease, built on rational certainties and absolute truths. For all of the disagreement about what we should do with radical existential freedom, everyone who recognizes it agrees that it entails radical uncertainty—the vertiginous sense of unknowing that is the source of our constant free-floating anxiety.

If we are to act in the face of doubt, mystery, ignorance, and the immensity of seemingly gratuitous suffering, we might heed John Keats’ prescription to develop “Negative Capability,” the ability to remain “content with half-knowledge.” This was not, as Lionel Trilling writes in an introduction to Keats’ letters, advice only for artists, but “a certain way of dealing with life”—one in which, Keats wrote elsewhere, “the only means of strengthening one’s intellect,” and thus a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in life, “is to make up one’s mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts.”

Keats' is a very Zen sentiment, a moody version of the "don't-know mind" that recognizes emptiness and suffering as hallmarks of existence, and finds in them not a reason for optimism but for the indefinite suspension of judgement. Still, the approach of Romantic poets and Buddhist monks is not for everyone, and even Sartre eventually turned to orthodox Marxism to impose a meaning upon existence that claimed dependence on the hard facts of material conditions rather than the unbounded abstractions of the intellect.

Perhaps we are are free, at least, to commit to an ideology to assuage our existential dread. We are also free to adopt the tragic defiance of another Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, who confessed to something of an “Optimistic Nihilism” of his own. Only he referred to it as a “pessimism of the intellect” and “optimism of the will”—an attitude that recognizes the severe social and material limits imposed on us by our often painful, short, seemingly meaningless existence in a material world, and that strives nonetheless toward impossible ideals.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Free Trial Offer for The Great Courses Plus: A Special Deal for Open Culture Readers

We've told you about the Great Courses Plus before--a new video subscription service that lets you watch free courses (about 8,000 lectures in total) across a wide range of subjects, all taught by some of the best lecturers in the country. The topics cover everything from History, Philosophy, Literature, and Economics, to Math, Science, Professional Development, Cooking, and Photography. And you can binge-watch entire college courses in a matter of days by watching videos on your TV, tablet, laptop and smart phone, with the help of apps designed for Apple, Google Play, Kindle Fire, and Roku.

Interested in trying out this service? Right now, the Great Courses Plus is offering a special deal for Open Culture readers. If you click here, and sign up for a free trial using the code openculture (one word), you can use this service for 30 days ... for free. And then, if you would like, you can get the next two months at 50% off ($9.99 per month). You will need to supply a credit card number up front. But if you cancel before the first 30 days, your card won't be charged. If you cancel before the second 30 days, your card will be charged $9.99. And if you cancel before the third month, you will only be charged another $9.99. That means you can learn a tremendous amount over the next 90 days, for a very low fee. It also means you can try out a service that may become one of your ongoing favorites.

Personally, I've watched 17 of their courses in recent years and can vouch for the product. And Bill Gates swears by them.

Again click here, and make sure you use the code openculture (one word).

Note: The Great Courses is a partner with Open Culture. So if you sign up for a free trial, it benefits not just you and Great Courses Plus. It benefits Open Culture too. So consider it win-win-win.

Hear 15 Hours of Frank Zappa’s Legendary 1977 Halloween Performances at New York’s Palladium

What do you give the Zappa fan who has everything? Why, of course, the three-disc set, Frank Zappa Halloween 77—a document of Zappa performances at New York’s Palladium in 1977 during a Halloween weekend stint—just released only a few days ago in an official form, as well as in a box set featuring 158 tracks and a Zappa mask and costume. Ah, it is too late! Too late! you say. The day is upon us! Truly, it is, but a Zappa costume never goes out of style—it can be worn year-round without embarrassment. And while you wait for the swag to arrive, light up your Halloween night with 15 hours of tracks from the four-night engagement in the Spotify playlist below.

By the time of these recordings, Zappa’s Halloween shows were “already the stuff of legends,” we learn from the official source, Zappa.com. “While the shows began in the late ‘60s, around 1972, these monumental performances would become annual events, initially in Passaic, NJ and Chicago IL before moving to New York City in 1974, where they’d remain…. From October 28-31, Zappa and his band played six historic shows at the 3,000 capacity Palladium. All the performances were recorded with four being filmed, resulting in Zappa’s mammoth film project, ‘Baby Snakes.’”




The 1979 film failed to find an audience beyond Zappa’s rabidly loyal cult following, or a distributor beyond Zappa himself. Many of the songs Zappa and his band played during the series of concerts appeared that same year on Sheik Yerbouti (say it out loud), an album that made sure to piss people off. The song “Bobby Brown” was banned from the radio in the U.S.; The Anti-Defamation League demanded an apology, which Zappa refused, for the song “Jewish Princess,” which was only performed once, during the ’77 Halloween shows; and the album’s major hit, “Dancin’ Fool,” made audiences dance to a song that made fun of them.

Zappa’s anti-social antics were not bugs but features—he maintained a rabid fanbase no matter what he did because he was a phenomenally talented, irrepressibly creative musician who attracted the best players in the business. The 1977 Halloween show band—including madman drummer Terry Bozzio and King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew—could not have been in finer form. Zappa’s arrogance may have rubbed non-fans of his music the wrong way, but to those who couldn’t get enough of his virtuoso prog-rock carnival, he had every reason to hold such people in contempt.

Zappa inspired so much devotion among fellow musicians that a number of them have agreed to tour with a hologram of the late guitarist-bandleader, to be produced by Eyellusion, “live music’s premier hologram production company,” explains the official Zappa site. The project has proven, in the words of Belew, who signed on then dropped out of the tour, “caustic and divisive.” It may also, whether you’re a fan of Zappa or not, seem more than a little spooky, and not in the fun trick-or-treat way. Maybe you, or your Zappa fan, would prefer to remember him as he was, in the flesh, sneering and shredding at the Palladium on Halloween night, 1977.

via @jhoffman

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear 14 Hours of Weird H.P. Lovecraft Stories on Halloween: “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Dunwich Horror” & More

Image by Dominique Signoret, via Wikimedia Commons

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far." So writes the narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu," the best-known story by Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who, before he burnt out and died young, spent his whole literary career looking into that infinity and reporting on the psychological effects of what he sensed lurking there. What better writer to read on Halloween night, when — amid all the partying and the candy — we all permit ourselves a glimpse into the abyss?

Indeed, what better writer to hear on Halloween night? Once it gets dark, consider firing up this fourteen-hour Spotify playlist of H.P. Lovecraft audiobooks, featuring readings of not just "The Call of Cthulhu" but The Shadow over Innsmouth, "The Dunwich Horror," "The Thing on the Doorstep," and other stories besides. (If you don't have Spotify's free software, you can download it here.)




Though Lovecraft has a much wider readership now than he ever accrued in his lifetime, some of your guests might still never have heard his work and thus struggle to pin it down: is it horror? Is it suspense? Is it the macabre, the sort of thing perfected by Lovecraft's predecessor in frightening American letters Edgar Allan Poe?

The word they need is "weird," not in the modern sense of "somewhat unusual," but in the early 20th-century sense — the sense of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine that published Lovecraft — of a heady blend of the supernatural, the mythical, the scientific, and the mundane. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that Lovecraft's stories, seldom sensational, "develop by way of incremental detail, beginning with quite plausible situations — an expedition to Antarctica, a trip to an ancient seaside town, an investigation of an abandoned eighteenth-century house in Providence, Rhode Island, that still stood in Lovecraft’s time. One is drawn into Lovecraft by the very air of plausibility and characteristic understatement of the prose, the question being When will weirdness strike?" An ideal question to ask while floating along the black sea of Halloween night.

This playlist of Lovecraft stories will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A New 2-In-1 Illustrated Edition of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? & A Scanner Darkly

FYI: Illustrators Chris Skinner and Andrew Archer present a new illustrated edition of two Philip K. Dick's novels, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? & A Scanner Darkly. And it comes in a great format. Read one novel, then flip the book upside down and enter the next altered reality.

The 2-in-1 book is only available through the Folio Society website.

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The Inksect: Award Winning Animation Envisions a Dystopian Future Without Books, Paying Homage to Kafka & Poe

"Where would we be without books?" That question, sung over and over again by Sparks in the theme song of the long-running public-radio show Bookworm, gets a troubling answer in The Inksect, the animated film above by Mexican Filmmaker Pablo Calvillo. In the bookless dystopia it envisions, fossil fuels have run out — one premise it shares with many modern works of its subgenre — but the powers that be found a way to delay the inevitable by burning all of humanity's printed matter for energy instead. "Soon after," announce the opening titles, "we, the human race, devolved into illiterate cockroaches."

But among those cockroaches, a few still remembered books, and not only did they remember them, they "knew that their powers could liberate our minds and help us evolve into human beings once again."




Taking place in a grim, gray, technologically malevolent, and elaborately rendered New York City, the story follows the journey of one such relatively enlightened man-bug's quest for not just a return to his prior form but to the richer, brighter world contained in and made possible by books. He catches a glimpse of Edgar Allan Poe with the raven of his most famous poem perched atop his head, a sight that might look absurd to us but inspires the protagonist to put pen to paper and write a single word: liberty.

The Inksect's literary references don't end with The Raven. Nor do they begin with it: you'll no doubt have already made the connections between the film's notions of a book-burning dystopia or men turning into cockroaches and their probable inspirations. Even apart from the many visually striking qualities on its surface, Calvillo's film illustrates just how deeply works of literature, from Ray Bradbury and Franz Kafka and many other minds besides, lie buried in the foundation of our collective culture. Even a film so expressive of 21st-century anxieties has to understand and incorporate the concerns that humanity has always dealt with — and so often dealt with, in many different areas and many different ways, through books.

The Inksect, named the best experimental film at the Cannes Short Film Festival in 2016, will be added to our list of Animations, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

via The Laughing Squid

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch a Step-by-Step Breakdown of La La Land‘s Incredibly Complex, Off Ramp Opening Number

La La Land, writer and director Damien Chazelle’s award-winning Valentine to Hollywood musicals, attracted legions of fans upon its release last December.

Their ardor is bookended by the enmity of Broadway diehards underwhelmed by the stars’ singing and dancing chops and those who detest musicals on principle.

The above video may not lead the detractors to swallow Chazelle’s Kool-Aid colored vision, but listening to choreographer Mandy Moore’s behind-the-scenes blow-by-blow of the complicated opening number, “Another Day of Sun,” should inspire respect for the massive feat of cinematic coordination below.

This may be the first time in history that a choreographer has singled out the Transport Department for public praise.

Remember how your folks used to freak out about you denting the hood when you capered atop the family Country Squire? Turns out they were right.

One of the Transpo' crew's crucial assignments was placing vehicles with specially reinforced hoods and roofs in the spots where dancers had been choreographed to bound on top of them. Getting it wrong early on would have wasted valuable time on a two day shoot that shut down an exit ramp connecting the 110 and 105 freeways.

The real La La Land conjures fantasies of Angelyne clad in head-to-toe pink behind the wheel of her matching pink Corvette, but for this number, the Costume Department collaborated with the Transport Department to diversify the palette.

In other words, the red-gowned flamenco dancer could emerge from a yellow car, and the yellow-shirted krumper could emerge from a red car, but not vice versa.

Mercifully, the art department refrained from a total color-coordination blackout. That moment when a gust of wind catches the skirts of the blonde conductor’s yellow dress plays like an intentional tribute to Marilyn Monroe, when in fact it was a lucky accident made all the more glorious by the sunny drawers she was sporting underneath.

Other day-of accidents required on-the-fly ingenuity, such as enlisting three burly crew members to provide off screen help to a performer struggling with a malfunctioning door to the truck concealing a Latin band within. (With temperatures soaring to 104°, they were hot in more ways than one.)

Moore was also off-camera, hiding under a chassis to cue the skateboarder, who was unfamiliar with the 8-count the 30 main dancers were trained to respond to.

Other “special skills” performers include a BMX biker, a Parkour traceur, the director’s hula hooping sister, and a stunt woman whose ability to backflip into the narrow channel between two parked cars  landed her the part… and kept her injury-free for over 40 takes.

Half of the finished film’s gridlocked celebrants are CGI generated, but the live performers had to remain in synch with the pre-recorded song by Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul, a particular challenge given the size of the outdoor filming area. Executive music producer Marius de Vries and engineer Nicholai Baxter solved that one by looping the track into each car’s radio, plus a number of hidden speakers and two more on a moving rig.

Moore was determined to keep her carefully plotted moves from feeling too dance-y—the only time the dancers perform in unison is at the very end, right before they hop back down, reenter their vehicles, and slam their doors shut as one.

For a more naturalistic vision, watch director Chazelle’s iPhone footage of the main dancers rehearsing in a parking lot, prior to the shoot.

Funny how, left to their own devices, these Angelenos seem to wear almost as much black and grey as their counterparts on the east coast….

The exuberance of the original has given rise to numerous community-based tributes and parodies, with stand-outs coming from the Xiamen Foreign Language School in China, North Carolina’s Camp Merrie-Woode, Notre Dame High School in Chazelle’s home state of New Jersey, and a 17-year-old Arizona boy making a promposal to leading lady Emma Stone.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She is currently directing Theater of the Apes Sub-Adult Division in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, opening next week in New York City.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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