There’s a short response to my previous post on the films of the Wachowskis over at Fuck Yeah Jupiter Ascending, and I just want to take a moment to think about it and be a little more explicit at how what I think Jupiter Ascending is doing in how it positions it characters in a relationship with interstellar capitalism.
Right at the top, I want to say thanks to FYJA for reading and engaging with what I wrote. Thanks you!
The author takes issue with my calling Jupiter Ascending a nihilistic film and they write this:
However, while Jupiter Ascending doesn’t show the total defeat of space capitalism, I strongly disagree with the suggestion that it is nihilistic. Nihilism holds that life has no true meaning, significance or purpose, and that is essentially the opposite of Jupiter Ascending’s ethos. Jupiter Ascending is a deeply humanistic film in that it demonstrates immense faith in our base human potential – Jupiter is stubbornly normal, with no special abilities or magical powers to speak of. She is simply herself, and she does what anyone in her situation could do – she makes tough choices when met with limited options, asks questions to attempt to understand what’s happening to her and fights to live. As far as the film is concerned, these qualities make Jupiter heroic and special. The film’s happy ending is not Jupiter saving the universe – it’s Jupiter finally finding happiness, purpose and meaning in life.
Jupiter Ascending is ultimately a very small, personal story of self-realisation and personal growth wrapped up in a glittery, quadrant-spanning package. And while it is non-committal on our potential to tear down the systems controlling the operations of the universe, it is resoundingly optimistic about the human condition and our capacity for good.
When I say that Jupiter Ascending is nihilistic, I don’t mean that it is some kind of deep dive into a dark hole that somehow rejects human existence. What I mean is that the very setup of the film presents us with an incalculably large scenario of politics, that of space capitalism, and at the end of the film Jupiter, and therefore the audience, turns away from that system precisely because it is so complex and difficult.
I agree 100% that Jupiter Ascending is life-affirming, but the particular kind of life that it affirms is one of acceptance, of “rolling with the punches,” and when put into a sequence with the revolutionary idealism of the Wachowskis’ previous films, it looks an awful lot like walking away from the political itself.
Jupiter’s normalcy is the vehicle that enables the film to be so nihilistic in the sense that, no, she is in fact not a normal person. She is one of the wealthiest people in the universe. She has the fate of millions of humans in her hands, and she has the support of a universal policing agency behind her. She has even defeated her greatest rival, the only real threat to her asserting power, and come out completely unscathed in the sense that she has lost nothing. Assertions to her aggressive normalcy, in a weird moment of translation, feels a lot like this story.
In many ways, Jupiter Ascending is a lot like The Matrix (the first film, not the trilogy) in that it presents us with a character who has an extensive amount of power. The endings match closely, what with some plot knitting being done right before someone uses their newfound abilities to fly around a city (in wildly different ways, however).
The nihilism comes from the question “what do we do now?” It is a question of a program, or a set of politics. As I argued in the previous post, the Wachowskis have moved from an ambivalent unhappiness with capitalism (in which a person can fight, and at great cost, maybe win) to an unhappiness that nevertheless accepts the capitalist realism of the universe.
When one of the richest, most powerful beings in the universe asserts “normalcy” in order to move away from engaging in some kind of direct politics, that feels like nihilism. The disavowal of one’s self, and one’s position in relation to others in the galactic system of harvest and oppression, so that you can live a particular kind of life that you’re used to feels like exactly what FYJA was claiming is not there: it is the rejection of significance and purpose in order to avoid dealing with that purpose.
And I loved the film, unironically (I’ve sort of realized that I need to say that around this film, which is odd), but I also think that it signals a particular far end of a political journey that the Wachowskis have been on for a long time.
When I say that Jupiter Ascending is nihilistic, I don’t mean that it is some kind of deep dive into a dark hole that somehow rejects human existence. What I mean is that the very setup of the film presents us with an incalculably large scenario of politics, that of space capitalism, and at the end of the film Jupiter, and therefore the audience, turns away from that system precisely because it is so complex and difficult
But that’s not what nihilism means. Nihilism is the position that there is no such thing as objective meaning or purpose to life, or any such thing as morality, good or evil; that nothing we do can ever mean anything or matter.
(Existentialism is nihilism plus an attitude of ‘but we should do something anyway and pretend it matters, even though we know deep down it doesn’t, because what else is there to do?’)
What you are describing, ‘the world is the way it is and we can’t change it, so me may as well just leave it be and carve out what life we can’, sounds more like a form of fatalism to me.
But what it certainly isn’t, is nihilism.
But you don’t think that an active turning away from action, a literal doing-nothing, is a nihilism? I’m thinking of the passive nihilism described by Nietzsche here (although we could get into a discussion about how willful that turning away is in order to bite into the Nietzsche’s active/passive divide).
But you don’t think that an active turning away from action, a literal doing-nothing, is a nihilism?
No — turning away from action is a response to nihilism, not the definition of it. (Other responses are possible too: that was the existentialist question, ‘If we accept the nihilist universe, in all its meaninglessness, why not just commit suicide?’, whihc led to The Myth of Sisyphus etc).
And similarly there are other causes for a turning-away from action: acedia, for example, or the kind of fatalism you describe.
You, for instance, seem to be thinking of a lack of action caused by being able to conceive of a better world, but seeing no way to bring that about, so turning-away from action because action, though justified, is futile: it won’t achieve anything.
Nihilism is deeper: for a nihilist, it’s not just that their action won’t achieve anything, it’s that there is nothing for it to achieve.
For the fatalist you seem to be describing, they can conceive of, say, a more just world, decide that a more just world would be better, but be turned away form acting because the forces of injustice seem too strong to ever allow the more just world to come about. hence their actions seem futile, fated to fail, so they stop acting.
But for the nihilist, it could be perfectly possible to bring about the just world: it’s jjust that the nihilist doesn’t see why a more just world would be better than this one, indeed, denies that there is such a thing as ‘better’. After all, when you get right down to it, a more just world and a less just world are both just different arrangements of subatomic particles, aren’t they? And there’s nothing outside the universe to measure those arrangements against, so neither can be ‘better’ than the other.
That is what nihilism means: a complete denial of any kind of meaning or morality in life. We are just particles pinging about, without purpose, without telos.
And turning-away from action in despair is one response to that, yes, but there are others: there’s Nietzsche’s solution of deciding that as nothing in the universe matters, what matters is exerting one’s power, crushing the weak, etc. Or there’s the existentialists’ answer of picking something, like justice, and pretending it matters, even though, in any kind of universal sense, it doesn’t.
But to use ‘nihilism’ to mean ‘not acting’ is to confuse the philosophy itself for a certain strand of response to it.
Totally appreciate the response here, but I think we’re coming to similar spots RE: nihilism that you’re unwilling to entertain because of a semantic brightline that you’re super tied to. I really think that at the heart of Jupiter’s turning-away from politics is a fundamental “this choice is as good as any other choice,” an emptying-out of the political that shows that there is no there there. It is the recognition of a void where the only thing to do is to arbitrarily live one’s life by clumsily defining a Good (for Jupiter we can see the vague “family” there) and then pursuing that.
Just a quick note that I’m not suggesting that turning-away is despair. It can be joyous and affirming, a layer of phenomenological replacement, a plank over the void. You’re totally in the right to characterize that as the existentialist or absurdist answer, but to say that any additional action (any “plus” to nihilism) somehow disqualifies it as nihilism proper isn’t convincing to me.
a semantic brightline that you’re super tied to
Not so much ‘a semantic baseline’ as getting the meaning of a technical term right.
It is the recognition of a void where the only thing to do is to arbitrarily live one’s life by clumsily defining a Good (for Jupiter we can see the vague “family” there) and then pursuing that.
That’s existentialism, not nihilism. Nihilism would be refusing to accept any good because it is arbitrary; existentialism is answering that by saying that pretending arbitrary goods are somehow meaningful is the only way to live.
to say that any additional action (any “plus” to nihilism) somehow disqualifies it as nihilism proper isn’t convincing to me
It doesn’t really matter what is convincing to you, though; historically, that is what nihilism means. It just is. See the article below.
Existentialism is an answer to the question posed by nihilism; it’s not the same thing as nihilism.
u do know that this records a long-ass history of the change-ability of the meaning of nihilism, and indeed accounts for ~many~ nihilisms, right? i don’t think this does what you hope it will.
u do know that this records a long-ass history of the change-ability of the meaning of nihilism
What I do know can be boiled down to two things:
(a) Like most terms in philosophy, ‘nihilism’ tends to have a multitude of meanings because every philosopher who uses it has a habit of giving it their own idiosyncratic definition; however, at its core is the idea that there is no such things as ‘good’ or ‘evil’ or states of the world that are ‘better’ than any other; a nihilist cannot improve the world, not because it is too hard or because the forces of evil will always fight back against such attempts, but because the very idea of ‘improve’ implies an externally-imposed ordering on world-states which is precisely what the nihilist denies exists. ‘Nihilism’ can cover broad ground, but one thing it simply cannot cover (without becoming totally meaningless) is the idea, expressed above, that the world would be better if it was like X, but giving up on trying to make the world like X because that state is perceived as being impossible to reach. Thw whole point of nihilism is that even if you did reach X then the world wouldn’t be any better (or worse) because ‘better’ is a meaningless concept and nothing we do, or can ever do, matters in any universal sense at all.
(b) In English, the second-person pronoun has three letters.