The Surprisingly Positive Effects of Being a Pessimist
Author and professor Eugene Thacker tells us about how pessimism can be a form of self-help.
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Has the world always been this bad? Eugene Thacker, author and professor of media studies at The New School in New York, thinks so. His new book, Infinite Resignation, is probably philosophy’s only beach read; it’s about pessimism and sketching out a hopeless philosophy for a hopeless world.
If The Power of Positive Thinking channeled America’s post-war optimism of the ‘50s, then Infinite Resignation—which came out on July 19—is our contemporary elegy. You don’t need graduate college courses to understand it. There’s no bibliography and no footnotes, but the pages are teeming with aphorisms and hilarious one-liners. Still, you can really descend into a pit of despair and anguish reading this kind of stuff; it isn’t for everyone.
Thacker covers the following and more: That there is no cosmic significance of my Twitter following; that the number of steps I took today won’t make me live any longer; that all my anxieties, doubts, and achievements are bound for the same destination: oblivion, non-existence; that life is a momentary lapse of being awake, a brief interruption between not-being.
Weirdly, all this makes me feel better. Pessimism helps me adopt an indifferent stance when things feel overwhelmingly helpless, like a life-preserver in an endless steel-grey ocean. Positive thinking—to me—is more like finding a life-preserver and upon grabbing it, it’s deflated.
Thacker’s pessimism has not just influenced me, but mass media and culture in general. The cover of his previous book, In the Dust of this Planet, somehow wound up in one of Jay-Z’s music videos. HBO’s True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto cites Thacker for influencing the nihilism of Rust Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey in season one. If you’re Glenn Beck, Thacker’s pessimism is a political threat. In a September 2014 segment, Beck dedicated nearly ten minutes of his show to the way “pop-nihilism” is taking over our culture, and incoherently posits Thacker’s philosophy as a form of “progressive eugenics.”
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I interviewed Thacker about pessimism, the humility of not having answers, and why Debbie (and Don) Downers can actually live longer and healthier lives than optimists.
You’re a pessimist?
I don't describe myself as a pessimist. The book is in large part about pessimism and there are some things that I do identify with in the thinkers that I mentioned. But I'm always really weary of the sort of tagging that often goes on in culture and philosophers do it to themselves. Philosophers are notorious for running around in sort of liberal tribes. They're realists or they're empiricists or they're speculative realists or whatever it is, and none of it means anything. It's just tagging.
So making that kind of declarative statement about yourself isn’t useful or what you want to do as a philosopher?
There is something futile about declaring that you’re a pessimist in the sense that a lot of what people think about philosophy is that a) you've figured stuff out; b) you’ve got a name for everything and then c) you're going to—in this condescending way—share your having figured everything out with everybody else who hasn't figured everything out.
And what interests me about a lot of the writers and thinkers I write about is that they are totally confused. They’re bewildered. They're full of uncertainty. Half of the time, their arguments descend into rant. They're often filled with humility, and a recurring theme is not about the know-it-all, but about failure and futility. An important point is that not one of the people I mention, like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, ever use the term pessimism to describe what they’re doing. It was something that people later on, historians and professors and so on, looked back and said what they were doing is this. And it was a way to begin to tag things. But it's interesting to me because it’s a self-undermining gesture to say “I’m a pessimist.”
What exactly is pessimism?
Well I can give you two versions. There's the dictionary definition, which usually has a couple of variations. One is that the world we live in is the worst of all possible worlds. Another variation is that life is doomed to suffering and failure, and a little more abstract version is that non-existence is preferable to existence. But again, I think if you read through [work from] Kirkegaard or Schopenhauer or Nietzsche, you’d be hard pressed to find any of them ever saying that.
To me, pessimism is interesting because it has something to do with the limits of thought, the limits of being human, really. And there's some sort of process that's going on between the thought of futility and the futility of thought.
A 2013 study published by the American Psychological Association found that “pessimism about the future may lead to longer, healthier lives.” The researchers conclude, “optimistic older adults face greater risk of disabilities.” Do these findings surprise you all?
It’s no surprise that something like this would come along, in which it turns out pessimism is actually kind of a more healthy attitude. There have been a few philosophy books that have argued something similar along these lines. I think what they're talking about is maybe better described as a kind of realism—a kind of sobering view detached from any sorts of ideals. The notion that if you don’t have any expectation then you can’t be disappointed.
Some philosophers are very private and don’t factor their own lived experience into their philosophy, but you’re open about having a chronic pain condition. How is pessimism related to your condition, if at all?
I think that for anybody that's dealt with a range of chronic ailments, from depression to chronic pain, one of the most profound and devastating things about it is that it is sort of without cause. In terms of complaining about chronic pain, how much time do you have? Suffering is the alpha and the omega of so many traditions of thought: Christianity, Buddhism, classical Indian philosophy, classical Chinese philosophy. It's interesting, because it's universal but relative at the same time. Everybody suffers. But, there is always somebody that suffers more than you, and there is always somebody that suffers less than you. It’s one of these things that is so concrete and so palpable, but is also so nebulous and fuzzy when you try to really define it.
When I was 22, I was in treatment for for an opioid addiction, and I read The Stranger by Camus and also some Kierkegaard. The ideas in those books helped me cope with my circumstances much more than any of the “positive psychology” and the treatment approved literature—especially the spiritual platitudes.
Sounds like that was a case of books that found you. In America, there is this sort of combination of the clinical establishment, which is basically owned by Big Pharma, and then varieties of the self-help industry, some religious, some secular—but basically all religions on some level. And that there’s a sort of one/two punch to deal with a whole panoply of conditions that are pathologized in ways that don’t seem to help patients in anyway whatsoever.
For me, reading this kind of stuff, I’m hesitant to say it’s comforting because that’s not the right word, but there’s something compelling to me about reading a text that doesn’t claim to have all the answers. There's something compelling to me about reading a fiction author or philosopher or a poet who is just as bewildered and confused and depressed and uncertain as I am. There's something compelling in reading a text that is simply articulating the uncertainty, that's asking questions that might not have answers. If you want to call that therapeutic, fine, call it therapeutic, I don’t really care.
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