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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 257-282
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Myth and Nihilism in the Discourse of Globalization
Scott Cutler Shershow
Miami University-Oxford, Ohio
A CURIOUS MIXTURE OF SEDUCTION AND SKEPTICISM SOLICITS ONE'S presence in that quintessential "border" region, the American Southwest, especially its current tourist capital, Santa Fe, New Mexico. As one of the many available guidebooks of the area puts it, "Numerous efforts at attracting tourism and publicizing Santa Fe... have given some people the feeling that, whether they're really drawn to it or not, they should come to Santa Fe. [But] those same efforts... have made others feel that Santa Fe is becoming—or... has become already—trendy and crowded,... a place to avoid." 1 First, in other words, the potential tourist is wooed by a mythic-romantic-promotional discourse that envisions Santa Fe as a paradise of history and art, a "Tahiti in the desert," where three cultures (Anglo, Hispanic, Amerindian) join in a fascinating pageant of diversity and culture. Then the tourist is assaulted by a critical discourse that disparages Santa Fe as too crowded, too commercial, or too expensive; and that, perhaps, goes on to explain how the famous look of this "city different" was merely the self-conscious invention of a group of mythic-romantic artists at the turn of the century who, in conjunction with the entrepreneurs of the Santa Fe railroad, [End Page 257] invented a "Spanish-pueblo" style of architecture and then "restored" the city to a look it had never had before. 2 These two contradictory attitudes—the positive and the negative, the celebratory and the skeptical—are, however, quite inseparable. One might even suggest that they need one another. Obviously enough, the mythic-romantic attitude takes Santa Fe as "given," a fullness available for one's consideration. But the critical attitude, even as it recognizes the commercial impulses that underwrite the cultural gift, and even as it unmasks what a recent writer aptly called the "adobe camouflage" 3 of the Santa Fe style, reveals in this its own desideration: that is, its continuing quest for an authenticity not yet contaminated by (its own) desire, its endless yearning for some other destination where no one (like us) has yet arrived.
I use Santa Fe as my opening example because it was there, musing on the city's mixed messages, that I first grasped the usefulness of the theoretical opposition offered by Jean-Luc Nancy in his book The Sense of the World. 4 Here, Nancy proposes to map contemporary thought in terms of two poles that he labels myth and nihilism. It is an opposition, as the Santa Fe example indicates in part, between fullness and lack, between "the gift" and "desire," between consideration and desideration; and thus finally between a "sense... always already given, deposited there as a comprehensive unity... [and a] sense not yet attained, fleeting, like spilled blood" (50). As this schematic map indicates, Nancy uses these terms in a manner that partakes of and yet finally puts pressure on their conventional senses. Both myth and nihilism initially involve what he calls "a pure sideration of truth" (50). The discourse of myth, most obviously, claims to convey a "truth" that is assumed to be given and absolute. On such mythic discourse, nihilism then typically performs a familiar theoretical reduction, saying: such-and-such, that was believed to be real, true, "a fact," is really illusion or delusion, fiction or fancy—just "a myth." Nihilism thus seems to exist in and as the precise inversion of the discourse it confronts and opposes. But as Nancy uses this term, nihilism must finally be understood not as the mere inverse of myth, as a simple belief in the terminal absence of mythic truth, but rather, more specifically, as its lack—and therefore, as an endlessly unsatisfied yearning for it. Nihilism is, in other words, the desire to appropriate the gift of myth. [End Page 258] In this, as in much else, the two poles of Nancy's opposition tend always to reconverge with one...