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The Play of Blooming Nihilism


The Play of Blooming Nihilism


Brian Schroeder

Is there a way out of nihilism's destructive reactivity and anonymity? Philosopher Brian Schroeder argues that play and the liberating freedom of laughter lie at the very heart of the transition from an incapacitating nihilism to an ecstatic nihilism that frees the individual from the spirit of heaviness.

Real politics, ecstatic politics, begins there. With a savage, encompassing peal of laughter
— Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom

Nihilism is no laughing matter. The greatest problem of our age, nihilism threatens on an unprecedented global scale through the increasing naiveté promulgated by hollow metaphysical views that rubber stamp with a vain imprimatur the ethical, political, and social convictions of the masses that uncritically accept the rampant technological and, dare one say, spiritual abuse of both the interior and exterior life. As Nietzsche most clearly identified, the problem of nihilism is fundamentally one of valuation. Nihilism is inextricably linked with metaphysics and the will to truth, and so it has come to determine, even if it is generally undetected, both the meaning of existence and the value that is placed on that meaning. When truth gives way, however, to the sway of interpretations, of hermeneutical play, to use Gadamer’s expression, the will is transformed, and so too is the game. This is precisely the razor’s edge that separates active and reactive expressions of the will to power.

Nihilism manifests itself in various contexts—for example, individual and collective, historical and psychological—and different expressions, for instance, ontological, epistemological, ethical, political, logical, theological. Its types are also variegated: incomplete, complete, extreme, consummate, ecstatic. It is the latter that Nietzsche decisively brings to our attention as that which offers perhaps the only possible way out of a destructive reactivity. “Ecstatic” nihilism leads to the overcoming of incapacitating forms of nihilism by recoiling nihilism upon itself, thereby divesting nihilism of a certain gravitas, of a weight that sinks the spirit and both suppresses and depresses the active will to life. Referring to it as a “divine way of thinking” (a characterization not lost on Heidegger), ecstatic nihilism not only signals the way beyond the simplistic dualisms that depict our valuative formulations but also frees the individual from the “spirit of heaviness,” killing this particular spirit in the process with the “light feet” of another spirit, of a dancing god—with playful laughter.

For those who possess the listening eye [1] to perceive the precarious fate facing the world today, and who desire not only to survive or endure but also to alter the course of the future, changing the directional compass of one’s soul is needed. The power of nihilism lies in the paralysis of the will, brought about by a feeling of despair and powerlessness. It is reinforced by the belief that nothing can be done to redirect the inexorable march of new technologies and the economic, political, and social realities that subtend them. Plato’s cave dwellers are just as much a reality today as in the past. And yet, there are always those who manage to turn around, who transform themselves, who play instead of march, who lead instead of follow, who create instead of merely watching.

The transformation of the will is the transformation of the personal self, the development of a soul. Yet about whom do we speak anymore in referring to such a person? According to Nietzsche, we live now among the “last man,” and what is active is not necessarily dominant. The meaning of “truth” and “value” is determined, as it has been throughout most of history, by a quasi-anonymous THEY that interprets the identity and purpose of the so-called individual and the “good” citizen. But that power, fundamentally reactive in its fear and misunderstanding of the singular, and even more of the being-in-common from which singularities emerge,[2] quakes at the potential of the anonymous collective, of the invisible community.

And yet, there are always those who manage to turn around, who transform themselves, who play instead of march, who lead instead of follow, who create instead of merely watching

This anonymity is the figure of “Bloom,” which does not refer simply to a particular type of person or social group but is the name for radical exposure and a mood, a Stimmung. The figure of Bloom is the name given to the present condition of ordinary humanity. In the 1990s, an anonymous collective of French intellectuals naming themselves “Tiqqun”[3] began writing to address the possibility of rethinking the notion of the communal—a radical communism—in an effort to stand against the onslaught of technologically driven, capitalist economico-politics and its ideology of what constitutes individualism and society. Rather than merely engaging in a post-Marxist analysis and agenda, Tiqqun extended its critique to include the outgrowths of existential, phenomenological, process, deconstructive, and poststructural thinking. One of the works it produced was titled Theory of Bloom. Here the figure of Bloom is analogous to what Joyce names in Finnegan’s Wake “Here Comes Everybody.” Bloom is a catholicity both secular and spiritual that emerges from and simultaneously deconstructs and moves beyond the institutional Church and State, signaling in its wake the kairotic watchfulness of the messianic time, that is, the subversion of the contemporary politics of biopower and sovereignty, about which Agamben, following Foucault, has so forcefully written. Bloom does not simply represent the modern person or society; rather, Bloom is one “who has become so thoroughly conjoined with his [or her] alienation that it would be absurd to try and separate them.”[4] The figure of “complete nihilism,” Bloom’s “lot is to open the way out of nihilism or perish. The ecstatic opening of [the human being], and of Bloom in particular, the I that is an Anyone, the Anyone that is an I, is the very thing against which the fiction of the individual was invented.”[5] Bloom is everywhere and yet is precisely from Bloom that there must be escape. Boom is the figure who points to the reinvention of what it means to confront the imminence of a potential impending consummate nihilism. Bloom is the name of resistance to the growing hegemonic sway of the spectacle, in Debord’s sense of the term, and to its often neutralizing, paralyzing reactive power. This power is the same that was exposed by Plato in his famous allegory of the cave, and against which Nietzsche, despite his attempt to reverse the movement of Platonism, which is to say, Greek-Christian metaphysics, also set himself. Bloom is that which names both what is to be overcome and celebrated in the human being. This is the transformative ecstasy that nihilism is capable of achieving, but only when the depths of its danger are fully plumbed and the risk of its potential consummation are actually and fully confronted.

But how to do this—that remains the task, the work, that faces us all. Bloom means “that we don’t belong to ourselves, that this world is not our world.”[6] There can be no lasting communal transfiguration until the Bloom that we all are is taken seriously. This is the development of the soul, the locus of Bloom’s blossoming into something new and different.

One does not usually think together play and nihilism, but play lies at the very heart of ekstasis, and thus is integral to the transition to an ecstatic nihilism. Is it not play that brings one to the liberating freedom of laughter? Nietzsche captures both the problem of and the solution for overcoming nihilism: “To laugh at oneself as one would have to laugh in order to laugh out of the whole truth—to do that even the best so far lacked sufficient sense for the truth…. Even laughter may yet have a future…. For the present, the comedy of existence has not yet ‘become conscious’ of itself. For the present we live in the age of tragedy, the age of moralities and religions.”[7] The play of ecstatic nihilism—laughter—is the antidote to all other forms of nihilism. Blanchot is correct when he notes that the will to overcome nihilism absolutely is the very realization of nihilism.[8] Play not only constitutes the essence of the game; it also defers completion of the game. Nihilism is the necessary counter aspect of life, without which there would be no development. That nihilism is part of the intrinsic logic of Western metaphysics is no mere accident or error; nihilism and affirmation are inseparably connected just as are active and reactive forces.

All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

Nihilism is a pharmakon; it is its own poison and remedy, in the same way that Bloom is both what is to be overcome and the overcoming itself. Nihilism is also a mask, but all masks merely conceal other masks. Nietzsche teaches us in Beyond Good and Evil that “all great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks, in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”[9] “Bloom is masked Nothingness.”[10] The meaning of Bloom is that the world as it is presently represented is not the world as it actually is or can be. “What matters here is how value is introduced in the world, or in other words, how a certain mode of existence is intensified and brought to its creative limit,” Erik Bordeleau incisively writes, drawing on Agamben’s distinction between the ‘messianic’ and ‘apocalyptic.’ “To believe in the world then is indiscernibly active and passive; it is to contemplate—and be contracted. Believing in the world, believing in this world anyway, necessitates envisioning its singular end—its eternal return, in the language of [Deleuze’s] Difference and Repetition.”[11] The conversion of debilitating nihilism—which Nietzsche framed as the affirmation of the vision of eternal recurrence (all too often erroneously construed as the most nihilistic thought)—into the liberation of play and the joy of living is the basis of a healthy community. It is founded on a radical faith in the world, and in the possibility of redemption, which is contingent on the actualization of overcoming nihilism as self-overcoming. This is nothing other than the development of the soul, of emergent singularity in the community that is already and is still to come.


[1] See my “The Listening Eye: Nietzsche and Levinas,” Research in Phenomenology 31 (2001): 188-202.
[2] On this point, see Jean-Luc Nancy, “Of Being-in-Common,” trans. James Creech and Georges Van Den Abbeele, in Community at Loose Ends, ed. Miami Theory Collective (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 1-12. Also, cf. Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, trans. Peter Connor (ed.), Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), xxxviii.
[3] This name is taken from the Hebrew phrase tiqqun olam, meaning the reparation, restitution, and redemption of the world.
[4] Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom, trans. Robert Hurley (LBC Books, 2012), 20. This text and others by Tiqqun can be found here.
[5] Ibid., 102-03.
[6] Ibid., 29.
[7] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), §1.
[8] Maurice Blanchot, “The Limits of Experience,” trans. John Leavey, in David. B. Allison, ed., The New Nietzsche (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 126.
[9] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1966), §40.
[10] Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom, 33.
[11] Erik Bordeleau, “无间道 (wu jian dao): Deleuze and the Way without Interstice,” in 中国封德勒兹国际研讨会论文集: International Deleuze Conference Symposium (Kaifeng: Henan University Press, 2013), 7. This paper is found here.


Brian Schroeder is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Religious Studies at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT).  He is the Executive Co-Director of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP). His research focuses on Post-Kantian European Philosophy, East Asian Philosophy, and the Philosophy of Religion. He is also an ordained priest in the Sōtō lineage of Yashiki Chijō, abbot of Yōkōji Zen temple in Japan.