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  • Contaminations:Irruptions of the Void
  • Carlo Galli (bio)
    Translated by Margaret Adams Groesbeck and Adam Sitze

Here we present, in broad terms, not a history of the Void, which Sergio Givone has covered with great authority, nor a history of nihilism, whose most important coordinates have already been mapped,1 but instead an essay on the irruptions of the void within the intellectual experience of the West.

Our basic hypothesis is, first of all, that these irruptions presuppose that the void exerts a ceaseless labor—which is not, however, a "productivity"—that is capable of dismantling the forms and norms that are established from time to time to curb it or at least to hide it. And secondly, that whenever we frantically try to neutralize the void, the void seizes us from its abyss with even greater violence, twisting our forms and violating our boundaries (which are so much more fragile than they claim to be in the face of its impervious power). As such, he who fears and exorcises the void and its devastation is most exposed to them, and he who believes he gets the farthest away from them, is actually the nearest. Irruption is not, therefore, simply an "experience," a deliberate attempt to transgress the limits of the human, toward Good and toward Evil.2 It is rather an unforeseen and unwanted experience, a catastrophe we suffer.

The sphere with which we are concerned is not theoretical but practical. Therefore the void is experienced as death, the absolute disorder, the annihilation of life—the very thing from which we wish to protect ourselves by creating the norm, law, and order to begin with. In this practical sphere, the categorical imperative absolutely must be security, which is to say, the deferral, or humanization, of death. There are many strategies that, in various guises, have the objective of securing life by means of a "productive" relation with death, of creating orders that incorporate disorder, strategies that make coexistence with death the origin of social cohesion, of coexistence among men. So many human laws find their own innermost force by incorporating the law of death. And if, as Emanuele Severino asserts, all Western thought that believes in the reality of death is nihilistic, and if this thought strives to defend itself from death with metaphysics and ontology, then there exist sophisticated forms of nihilism that define themselves by their proximity to death, to the annihilation of living beings.

We learn this from René Girard and his theory of the sacrifice of the scapegoat; from Hegel, who in Phenomenology of Spirit demonstrates the power of death, that absolute [End Page 186] mistress, at work in history—and more precisely in the history of the slave who introjects death as anguish, as an agonized relation of labor with the Thing, the necessary passage toward the freedom of the Spirit; from the lesson of existentialism, which—from early Martin Heidegger to Karl Jaspers, from Luigi Pareyson to Jean-Paul Sartre—in the experience of death as the possibility exclusive to man that provides the occasion for the discovery of concrete contingency as the liberty and authority of the individual; from the negative thought (from Friedrich Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt to Ernst Jünger) that draws its own nihilistic disenchantment from the power of the void; from every form of "weak" thought, that from resignation—from Verwindung, the remission of the power of nihilism already outlined in late Heidegger—arrives at pietas toward the world, to let be whatever is (and, with this, the productivity of death extinguishes itself in non-productivity).3

These historical-political figures, so different from one another, interpret death less as a danger than as a destiny—one that can be transformed from the merely natural into the human, though never contained by the rhetoric of humanist discourse. And therefore, as we have said, even these historical-political figures believe they can render death productive for man: they believe they can turn death into a contradiction that is dialectically surmountable, into something manageable or governable.4 They believe in the existence of words and orders capable of incorporating or subduing death. This is a problematic faith, but it is...