THE NEW AMERICA
By Thomas J. J. Altizer
Now that we are coming to understand how deeply much if not most of Islam hates America today, it is appropriate for us to attempt to understand America in this perspective, recognizing that such hatred is a genuine response to America. While this occurs among Islamic fundamentalists, these are not so very different from American fundamentalists, both believe that modern secularism is the very antithesis of faith, and both see that secularism as dominating the world. Moreover, both are given to a revolutionary transformation of our secularism, one demanding the deepest energy and commitment, and one occurring in a truly apocalyptic time. Both Christianity and Islam were originally apocalyptic, and in each their new orthodoxies transformed that apocalypticism, just as in each the deeper or most disruptive heresies are apocalyptic heresies. And just as an American fundamentalism knows an American secularism as its deepest enemy, an Islamic fundamentalism can know America itself as the Great Satan, an America which is now the center and the soul of a new and comprehensive and overwhelmingly powerful secular world.
Our public world is more bereft of theology than it has ever previously been, hence it has no way of understanding this situation theologically, or of understanding the religious or ultimate depths of that profound disruption which is occurring among us. We do know that such disruption can generate fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is now more powerful in the world than ever before, but this is a uniquely modern or postmodern fundamentalism, being inseparable from its deep reaction against modern secularism. This alone makes possible a calling forth of an ultimate response, a response which is now commonly an apocalyptic response, but we truly lack a genuine understanding of apocalypticism today. Nevertheless, full modernity has given birth to a profoundly apocalyptic thinking, as manifest in the ultimate impact of apocalyptic thinkers such as Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche, all of whom called for an apocalyptic transformation of the world. While this is seemingly a purely secular apocalypticism, there is a strange coincidence between our secular and our religious apocalypticism, each can know our time as a time of ultimate ending, and each can know that this demands a revolutionary transformation.
If it is possible to understand this coincidence as a coincidentia oppositorum, each of these opposites thereby illuminates the other, for in each only an apocalyptic situation can make possible a total transformation, and an apocalyptic situation which is the ending of everything that is manifest as history or the world. It is remarkable how frequently apocalyptic language now occurs in our public world, we hear of the end of art in our new world, and the end of all genuine community, or all deeper culture, and even the ending of the truly individual person or subject. Our new public world is the most anonymous world in history, and if America is the center of a new technology and a new mass media, a new and total technology can be understood as effecting an apocalyptic transformation, one truly bringing an old world to an end.
We know how seriously our conservative political establishment takes fundamentalism, but few are aware of how conservative our new religious world has become, only conservative theology is now taught in virtually all of our seminaries, and our religious publishers and periodicals are almost all now conservative, a situation radically different from that of only a generation ago. Here, our religious and our political establishments truly parallel each other, so the ultimate differences between our religious and our secular worlds are now being mitigated, for this is not simply a new peace between them, but far rather a new partnership and cooperation. Let us remember that a comparable partnership between the religious and the secular made possible the calling forth of the Manifest Destiny of America in the nineteenth century, one in genuine continuity with an apocalyptic American Puritanism, but also in continuity with our new destiny today.
While this is the destiny that most threatens Islamic fundamentalists, they have embraced a fully parallel destiny for themselves, and it is truly remarkable how a tiny body of Islamic fundamentalists has so gravely threatened the greatest super power in history. Not only are billions being spent against this threat, but it has elicited perhaps the most comprehensive patriotism in our history, never has genuine dissent in America been so rare as it is today, and now all real opposition threatens to collapse. Despite the seemingly radical thinking in our academic world, this is a thinking now threatening no one, and if our students are more conservative then ever previously, this is at bottom true of our professors as well. How significant that when philosophy returns to theology with the advent of postmodernity, this occurs only as a deeply conservative theology, as in Levinas and Derrida and their innumerable followers.
Perhaps the apocalyptic language most revealing of our situation is Nietzscheís proclamation of the death of God, a death which he could know as the most ultimate event which has ever occurred, and one bringing a final end to every ground of consciousness and the world. Thus this is a death that ushers in a new and universal nihilism, a nihilism which Nietzsche knew to be our destiny, and one already enacted by our great American epic, Moby Dick. America may well now be the most comprehensive site of a new nihilism, a nihilism that Heidegger could know as being inseparable from our new technology, just as he could declare in Introduction to Metaphysics that America and the Soviet Union are metaphysically identical, for each is free of all previous history. That, too, is an apocalyptic situation, but it is also a nihilistic situation, and if apocalypticism is inevitably nihilistic in its ultimate willing of the end of the world, apocalyptic signs which are nihilistic signs abound in our world. Nietzscheís impact has never been greater than it is today, and above all so in America, and that very America whose destiny may well be an apocalyptic destiny, and perhaps finally the most explosive destiny in history.
If nihilism is now a deep condition of our world, this is a nihilism that is surely known by our fundamentalists, and while they speak of our world as a totally secular world, at bottom they know this world as a nihilistic world. While there are no real theologians among fundamentalists today, just as their language is extraordinarily limited, we can know that they apprehend our world as a nihilistic world if only by way of the violence of their assaults upon it. So it is that Ďnihilismí is probably a far better word than ĎsecularismĒ to call forth the ultimate enemy of fundamentalism today, and if so that would make manifest yet another coincidence between fundamentalism and our common world. Certainly Islamic fundamentalists can know our world as a nihilistic world, and this is not a wholly irresponsible judgment, for it is fully paralleled by the judgments of many of our most astute contemporary critics and thinkers.
But what is nihilism? There is no common understanding of nihilism today, and not even among those scholars and thinkers who have most fully investigated it, but we do know that a fully modern or postmodern nihilism is historically unique, in no other world have so many of the most creative expressions of thinking and the imagination so deeply contended with nihilism, just as nowhere else have mass movements occurred which can be known as nihilistic movements. If DostoyevskyĒs The Possessed is that novel which most purely calls forth our nihilism, it is noteworthy that here a political and a theological nihilism coincide, and this novel is known as our most deeply prophetic novel, already envisioning the most pathological movements of the twentieth century. No one doubts that Nazism is truly nihilistic, and Communism is now commonly apprehended as being nihilistic, too, but is it possible to understand that new world which is being born with the advent of postmodernity as a nihilistic world?
While many can apprehend our mass media and our new technology as being nihilistic in their deeper impact, what can this actually mean, and does it have any possible theological meaning? Let us remember that theological language was the first language to employ the category of an actual as opposed to a literal nothingness, this occurs in Augustineís understanding of sin, for here sin is not simply a literal nothingness or a ďprivation of being,Ē but an actual nothingness, and an actual nothingness which is an embodiment of an eternal death. That death is an eternal damnation, a damnation which had an enormous impact upon our history, and it is manifest in that ultimate guilt which has so deeply shaped our consciousness and history. This is a guilt which once could be commonly known in a confrontation with our deepest selfhood, and Augustineís calling forth of that guilt in his Confessions marks the very advent of a uniquely Western self-consciousness, or a uniquely Western subject. That subject is a truly doubled consciousness, one inseparable from an ultimate self-division or self-alienation, and a self-division that is inseparable from a genuine self-consciousness. Now this is the very self-consciousness which so many see as coming to an end in our new world, and that ending is most clearly manifest in a new and total technological world, but nevertheless most purely envisioned by the great artists and poets of late modernity.
Here, one discovers a pure emptiness, indeed, and a pure emptiness which is an actual nothingness, a nothingness which is the consequence of an actual loss, and an actual loss of that interiority which once was so deeply our own. Now nothingness itself can be and has been purely envisioned, nor is such vision wholly an esoteric vision, it can enter the public realm itself, which is just what so many critics now judge to be occurring. But if this is truly a new emptiness, and even a universal one, it will inevitably be anonymous, or inseparable from a new and universal anonymity, one it is true profoundly called forth in our late modern literature and art, and one ever increasingly dominant in our late modern society. In this perspective the advent of postmodernity is an inevitable consequence of that society, and while we have no common understanding of postmodernity, there are few who doubt that a truly new world has arisen among us, and a world which is quite literally a post-modern world. Now if this world can actually be known as a truly empty one, and empty if only empty of a uniquely Western interiority or a uniquely Western subject, then thereby it can be known as a nihilistic world, and this is just the response to postmodernity which now commonly occurs.
The truth is that an enormous number of non-Westerners have long known the Western world as a nihilistic world, contemporary Islamic fundamentalists certainly did not inaugurate this judgment, and if non-Westerners can know the West as an absolute assault upon their own traditions, such a judgment is now occurring in the West itself, at least insofar as the West has become our contemporary world. Is it possible that Islamic fundamentalists in some sense know our world better than we do ourselves, or do so in at least one of its dimensions, can they apprehend an ultimate emptiness in ourselves to which we are now blinded, and not only an ultimate emptiness but an absolute emptiness, an emptiness wholly conditioning everything that we are? If Moby Dick truly is our great American epic, and an epic which is a prophetic epic, is it possible that Moby Dick is a pure symbolic image of ourselves? Thereby we could know ourselves as an embodiment of an absolute nothingness, and an absolute nothingness consuming everything in its wake.
Of course, both our political and our religious establishments are wholly closed to any such judgment, indeed, it is doubtful if they could even become open to the very possibility of such a judgment, and while our political establishment is far more powerful than our religious establishments, it is perhaps our religious leaders who are most blind today, and blind above all from the perspective of their own traditions. While we are aware of the depth of religious ignorance today, we are commonly unaware of the religious ignorance of the greater body of our clergy, or of the poverty of contemporary religious and theological thinking, or of the enormous weakness of those religious groups who are attempting to move the world into a forward rather than a backward direction. If Dostoyevskyís Grand Inquisitor is the purest nihilist whom he created, this symbolic figure could be known as a paradigm of that religious leadership today which is having the deepest impact, and not only in America but in the world as a whole.
Yes, our world is an apocalyptic world, and apocalyptic if only because of the depth of that nothingness which we have called forth, if that nothingness is an absolute nothingness, then it can be known as an apocalyptic darkness, and an apocalyptic darkness ushering in a truly new Satan. A uniquely modern theology is wholly silent about Satan, but a uniquely modern imagination is centered upon an absolute darkness, or an absolute emptiness, or an absolute nothingness, an imagination which was inaugurated by that Blake who could finally know the uniquely Christian God as Satan. This most fully occurs in his ultimate epics, Milton and Jerusalem, and there it occurs as an apocalyptic coincidentia oppositorum of Christ and Satan, a dialectical coincidentia of an absolute light and an absolute darkness. Blake is our fullest if not our purest apocalyptic visionary, and he is more influential today than he has ever been before, surely a source of deep light in our ultimate darkness, and a light illuminating our apocalyptic world.
Contemporary fundamentalist assaults upon our world pale in the perspective of Blakeís assaults upon his world, and his was an assault wholly from within our world, or from within its deepest depths, that is necessarily the way of the genuine prophet, and for a prophecy whose absolute Yes is inseparable from an absolute No. Thus we should recognize the grace of being given an absolute No, and if self-righteousness has never been so crudely blatant as it is in America today, self-righteousness is always self-destructive, and most so when we are most blinded to our own self-righteousness. Our conservative voices are now calling upon us to become awake, and to become awake to the ultimate threat of religious terrorism or world terrorism, but is not the deeper call to become open to our own ďterrorism,Ē a terrorism inseparable from the domination of the world which we have chosen, and, yes, inseparable from that nihilism which we so deeply embody.