More Nihilism! Some brief notes on Critchley’s How to Stop Living and Start Worrying


Reading Simon Critchley’s How to Stop Living and Start Worrying I was (paradoxically?) hopeful that I had a supremely negative text on my hand. The book starts by engaging an issue I discussed here – that philosophy and life, or perhaps more accurately living, have become a mess leading philosophy towards self help and folk psychology. The very title of Critchley’s book lampoons this fact. Start Worrying consists of a series of interviews regarding Critchley’s biography, love, laughter, death, as well as a shared interview with the novelist Tom McCarthy. The interviews are done by by Carl Cederstrom a Professor at the Institute of Economic Research at Lund University.

There are interesting notes about Critchley’s struggle to become an established philosopher (something which seems instinctively unlikely given that he is well established at the New School) and a surprising comment about his excitement in regards Nick Land and other English thinkers at the time (22). Yet my surprise is no doubt resulting from the problem of branding which Critchley mentions (3). That is, despite my somewhat limited knowledge of Critchley’s work I already had him pegged as some mix of Lacan and postmodernism who had previously commented on Badiou.

In discussing the aforementioned relation of philososophy and the self, Critchley engages Lacan techniques as self-recognition becomes miscregonition and that one becomes stuck between this self-induced misrecogniton and what the mirror of the brand, however warped, displays. In a similar vein Critchley discusses the importance of love, laughter, and death in connection to the impossibility of authenticity. In line with authenticity’s impossibility, Critchley argues that philosophy is a producer of crises (34) and points to concepts such as Husserl’s il y a (42) as examples.

The most interesting part of the whole text however, is Critchley’s discussion of Marguerite Porete and the self destruction of the soul through love (62-63). Porete was a mystic burnt at the stake in the 1300s for her system of refined love (62). One of her texts was The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls in which a divine self-hacking of the soul is necessitated to make room for love. The self-mutilation sounds like a vaguely theological Bahnsen. But, with his invocations of Lacan, Levinas, Heidegger and others, I wonder why the self butchering is always restrained at the level of structuralism. That is, any form of material destruction is defused at the point where it could threaten the structure of the subject regardless of whether that structure misrecognizes itself or is otherwise split. What function does the structure of the subject serve other than as guarantee for phenomenal experience, affective states, free will etc? To further materialize the subject is of course unacceptable to any theorist who holds on to the hopes of humanism. This leads to some unfortunate

Unfortunate remarks about scientism (33) and McCarthy makes a painful misguided comment about neuroscience (117). In the former case Critchley claims that naturalistic views cover over the contingency of science. This is an odd statement given thinkers such as Feyerabend and his anarchist view of science. McCarthy attacks neuroscience for claiming to discover meaning at the smallest level yet this assumes a reductionist view of neuroscience in addition to the assumption that neuroscience is attempting to undermine reason or meaning. Understanding the functional components of a thing however does not threaten its meaning on a different stage such as language or culture in the way McCarthy assumes. What neuroscientist is going to burn all his novels because they have understood the neuronal (setting aside all the other contextually formative factors) processes which led to their being written if such a thing were possible?

Here I am also reminded of Badiou’s odd statement in the first issue of Collapse equation neuroscience with phrenology.

Meaning becomes a shunt which separates itself from everything which threatens to separate it from some form of human genericness. The trick becomes discussing objects, processes, event which, as far as we know, occur at the human level (or at the level of sentience) such as politics and ethics without lapsing into the closed circuit of anthrocentrism or the subject. Or in ecological terms, the problem becomes of discovery how nested or open humans are in a stratified world.

Critchley seems to at least partially suggest this path when he mentions the importance of finitude and contingency for his philosophy. But in locating this within the Kantian tradition the discussion is not about the relation of human and non-human processes/entities on different levels but only in the same human realm – that is, in relation to politics, culture, history as human activities severed from non-human complicities. Here Porete is again interesting as even a force (divine, romantic or otherwise) caught within a humanism threatens to undo it.

The unacknowledged opponent of Critchley’s text seems to be nihilism, as any kind of attack on meaning-in-itself, meaning which should be replaced with a more ecological sense of human thought to its outside.

Still, Critchley’s short text provides a more honest relation of biography to philosophy than do most texts – both his own and biography in general.

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One Response to “More Nihilism! Some brief notes on Critchley’s How to Stop Living and Start Worrying”

  1. Well I’ll refrain from saying what I think of Critchley as that might further damage his self-(extinguishing)-image, however he does so more about Porete in his text on ‘Mystical Anarchism’, which, to me, has some completely misguided and reactionary things to say about 60s politics, abstraction, etc. But if you want to check it’s here:

    I guess you’ve read Infinitely Demanding and nihilism is this issue, although if you check Alberto’s article in the above issue you’ll see how tissue-thin this concept is in SC. Anyway I’ll sign off before I say anything rude about everyones favourite Kantian metrosexual

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