So … I understand that Lululemon (the Canadian retailer whose clothes feature prominently in my daughter's wardrobe) is urging its employees and customers to read Ayn Rand. A blog entry on their company web pages suggests that they are looking to inspire people to "greatness" because otherwise they will be trapped by "mediocrity."
I only mention this because because I've heard a lot of these terms of late, let's say in the last year. I've heard a lot of people talking about the "will to win," "the struggle of meeting a challenge," the need to "leave it all on the field," etc., etc.
There is something amazingly odd about this discourse. Let me be clear about my own view: it is utter crap. It is the kind of stuff bad basketball coaches say to their team in the locker room before the game (good coaches, btw, review strategy because they don't trust in slogans to win games). Yet, because we hear it about us and because a prominent retailer is offering it to us as something we should know (and making it recommended reading for their employees), let's take a second or two to think about it.
My first concern is question: why is nihilism (the philosophy Rand supported and defined) coming back into vogue among Canadians? Is it? I mentioned a few years ago the Canadian conservatives adopted an odd form of nihilism that actually ran counter to conservatism. I'd suggest that the Lululemon set is not very conservative. What appeals to them in nihilism? I suspect that part of the appeal is that there is not a great deal of familiarity with Rand's doctrines or with nihilism. Rand's work is not about being good at what you. It is not about being a better teacher or clothing seller or basketball coach. Yet, I suspect that its appear is that some people are thinking it that way. What we have, then, in the rising appeal of nihilism (if we actually have that) is not something that is very nihilistic. Its more in the way of Ayn Rand does self-help.
To be frank, Nihilism is, for me, a deeply disturbing ideology. Its anti-humanistic, and views most of humanity as a pretty bad lot: mediocre, petty, etc., deserving only to be dominated by the "great individual." Ideologically, it has more in common with fascism then anything else. Those people who are nihilists like to think of themselves as better then everyone else. They would argue that my view -- spelt out in this blog -- are actually a sign of my own mediocrity, indicative of my plebeian second-class status. You can, of course, see the basic problem with Nihilism straight off: it is a logical contradiction. One either (a) accepts the nihilistic premise that they are better then you and so the only thing one can do is recognize their superiority or (b) demonstrate one's self to be mediocre by not recognizing the nihilists superiority.
Earlier I criticized nihilistic conservatism for … well … its silliness. This brand of nihilism (let's call it "Lululemon nihilism") is pretty banal. The first thing we can learn about it, then, or that we should probably learn about it is that it is not really nihilism. Lululemon nihilism bears a closer relationship to self-help manuals then to Ayn Rand precisely because it retains humanistic dimensions. It is odd, to be sure, and any nihilism is potentially problematic (because it predicated on the odd form of logic explained above), but this stuff strikes me as pretty inoffensive.
The second thing that we might learn is that this form of nihilism is pretty closely tied to consumerism. If there ever was a cultural form that was connected to mediocrity, it must be consumerism. Consumerism is about buying happiness but in an age of mass production the happiness one buys is the same as everyone else's, hence, consumerism itself cannot provide a way to differentiate the "superior" from the "mediocre": it treats everyone the same and must do this. What have, I will suggest, is not so much nihilism being smuggled into popular culture via an Ayn Randesque colonization of trendy brand names but the reverse: consumer capitalism is colonizing nihilism, turning it into yet another good to be bought and sold: "feeling a bit down? Your [fill in product or occupation or avocation X here] not up to snuff? By an [fill in brand name Y here] and you will rise above mediocrity."
Nihilism, of course, has nothing to do with consumerism. Key nihilist thinkers tended to ignore it for the reasons I noted above (it forces commonality on culture). What is going on here is that the folks selling consumer products think they have found a better marketing strategy. Their product is about superiority.
If we put these things together, we have an odd cultural situation going on. One that I don't necessarily want to touch and which I personally find rather disturbing, Lululemon is one example. The odd discourse I hear among my students (which apes "greatness") is another. I suspect there is something else going on. These people (my students) appropriate this language because they feel banal in their own lives. Yet, this nihilism (if I am right) is not very threatening. It is another form of consumerism; not a political movement.