There's Always Death To Look Forward To

Nihilist Arby’s and the cheerful nihilism of the internet.

Image: Matthew MacQuarrie via Unsplash

Meh. There’s always Death to look forward to,” my dad would say whenever I would air my frustrations with a world that was at odds with the one I had conjured in my mind. Though I found his blatant disregard for my artful misery frustrating in my youth, I later found myself boomeranging the exact same words back at him when he would speak to me of his own problems. Those words served as a beacon for us both in an otherwise dark, cruel, and shitty world. The upshot to everything is not “happiness.” Or a career. Or a house. Or a partner. It’s the sweet encroaching hand of blackness. Nothingness. Death.

There is no better way to comment on the futility and transience of existence than through the vehicle of social media, which employs a user interface that perfectly lends itself to pith and humor, whether it be a meme, a gif, or a tweet. Take, for instance, the “lol nothing matters” gif: succinct, droll, and forever relevant. “It is literally the gif to end all gifs,” wrote Adrian Chen for Gawker. He deduced that, by the rebuttal power of this one gif, all social media accounts would be disabled and we would move to remote mountaintops. Until then, however, we resort to the power of believing in nothing and compulsively commenting on it.

When I reentered the social media world last year, after a five-year hiatus, my friend introduced me to Nihilist Arby’s. While everyone else was inhabiting the respective blue-and-red echo chambers of social media, I had found The Black Bubble. Nihilist Arby’s was my gateway drug to social media-packaged Nihilism (Cheerful NihilismWe Believe in NihilismExistential NihilistNihilist Memes etc.). I suppose, in a way, this social media-packaged Nihilism was helping to propagate philosophical knowledge, dredging it out of the sea of stuffy academia and plating it up for those who otherwise couldn’t be bothered. But the very act of writing about (and glamorizing) Nihilism goes against its very grain.

Though there were many Nihilist-focused Twitter and Facebook accounts from which to choose, I wanted to know what the creator of Nihilist Arby’s would say about this particular brand of Nihilism because of the uniquely dark quality of the content (“The best part of this new healthcare plan is that here at arbys, we were all ready to die anyway. Eat arbys,” and “Tonight as half the nation cries and the other half enthusiastically fucks members of their immediate family, remember: Arbys exists for now.”). What could be more nihilistic than a mountain of red meat? Nihilist Arby’s also has an outrageous engagement rate: One of its most recent tweets, which read “Life hack: die” received 23,000 likes and 12,000 retweets with only 290,000 followers, which is impressive. So I tracked down the person behind it and was afforded a glimpse into the weird and wonderful mind of Brendan Kelly.

Kelly, former corporate copywriter and current frontman to punk bands The Lawrence ArmsThe Falcon, and the Wandering Birds, generated the idea for Nihilist Arby’s when working in the marketing and advertising department of a prominent ad agency. “Advertising is so removing its own ribs to suck its own dick,” he said when I asked him about his time there. Flabbergasted by the stupidity of a cereal company attempting to make cornmeal ubiquitous by way of social media, Kelly felt compelled to create a Twitter account, right then and there, of a fictitious person who worked in advertising and was so depressed by the futility of having to tweet such inane content every goddamn day that they become increasingly apathetic and unhinged. He googled Arby’s, found a photo of the luscious meat void, googled Nihilism, found the “What if there is no meaning to life?” header, and that was it. Nihilist Arby’s was live.

Nihilist Arby’s is just one of many accounts, on both Facebook and Twitter, dedicated to this trope of Nihilism and disillusion. And though it goes to dark, fucked up places — where Daddy sucks off hobos, abortions are offered as meal deals, and sandwiches are made of Kendall Jenner and Steve Bannon fucking — the malaise that induced its inception is not unique. It’s the same stuff that spread like a virus through humanity (at an especially rapid rate since the 2016 primaries) and rendered many of us totally bewildered, if not a bit demented.

“Is there a sweet escape in not giving a shit about anything?” Kelly asked me. “Of course. I mean, there is probably no more nihilistic tome in the canon of Nihilism than the second N.W.A. album. It’s all about rape and stealing money and fuck everything and all of you.” But what about Nietzsche, I asked (we wasted no time with formalities because there’s only so long and then we die).

“When people talk about Nihilism as Russian political philosophy or Nihilism as a branch of Nietzscheism, it’s like, what’s your point? Fuck you for telling me what not caring is supposed to look like!” he said, trying to suppress his maniacal laughter. “I personally don’t believe in anything. And not believing in anything could take any shape or form. If you think there is some sort of structure to not believing in anything, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

What intrigued me about Kelly was his distinct ability to care about everything: Our current state of defunct affairs, his daughter, the climate. He is thoroughly engaged with the world around him. What I realized after talking to him, and many of my more cynical friends, is that most people who claim to possess nihilistic tendencies actually care a hell of a lot. Their empathy levels are off the charts. Herein lies the paradox: What the hell is Nihilism anyway? And why are there so many social media accounts acting as its purveyors?

Take Cheerful Nihilism, for instance. Cynthia Lan Sears, Doctoral Student and Graduate Research Assistant responsible for its creation, recently posted a video explaining why she felt compelled to do so. “I started Cheerful Nihilism as a way to cope with this free-fall decline of my life,” she explained in perfectly cheerful-nihilistic fashion. “Nihilism is zeitgeist, spirit of the times right now,” she continued, “because there’s been a huge failure of all the institutions that were supposed to provide knowledge and standard of living for the citizenry.” We crave connection and authenticity and it just so happens that Nihilism, in all of its potential for black comedic brilliance, is what we’re turning to.

David Marshall, Research Professor of New Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at Deakin University, posits that “humour and comedy are always ways in which — no matter whether you’re living in a very oppressive regime or a democratic regime–people can connect without committing themselves to a full-on opinion.” It doesn’t take a wild stretch of the imagination to understand why highly empathic people find solace in such humor. Especially when it’s the kind that cuts hard and fast, getting you right in the gut in a way that some thousand-page manuscript on the futility of existence never could.

We use memes as vessels of commiseration and connection in an otherwise strange and unforgiving world. A world that starkly contrasts that of our Baby Boomer parents. As a result, there has been a staggering shift in generational expectations.

“Baby Boomers were given the world,” said Kelly. “They’re the most self-important babies making their own turds into gold of any generation that has ever existed…And Boomers said to their kids ‘Hey check out my mansion. If you go to college, you’ll get this.’ And then 2008 happened and the world collapsed and Millennials were like ‘I thought we were getting stuff.’” No wonder we’re so despairing.

This hopelessness, and preoccupation with catastrophe, has also invaded the television market. In a recent Forbes piece concerning Millennials’ obsession with the apocalypse as made evident by the clear glut of post-apocalyptic TV, contributor Zara Stone posits that Millennials “have trouble imagining a future where they’ll earn enough to buy a house, raise a family, and even travel without sanctions. Hence, programming that tells them this is the norm — by allowing them to think the lack of a future is acceptable.” And maybe it is. Maybe not giving a shit, or pretending to not give a shit, is our only chance of low-risk survival as it requires minimal amounts of emotional exertion.

When I asked Eugene Thacker, author and Professor of Media Studies at The New School, about this particular brand of Nihilism that has entered social media culture, he told me what I had long suspected, but couldn’t quite articulate.

The notion of a nihilist meme only makes sense if it puts an end to memes — all memes. But this would never happen, since humanity is itself a meme, having propagated itself across the planet with all the voracious expediency of an alien pandemic — and if human beings are capable of anything, it’s in making everything a ‘thing.’

What he wrote next made me want to just light the whole lot of us on fire.

Is it any accident that at a time when we have become acutely aware of the challenges concerning global climate change, we have also created this bubble of social media? I find social media and media culture generally to be a vapid, desperate, self-aggrandizing circus of species-specific solipsism. And because of this, it is a reflection — ironically, the stupidity of our species might be its only legacy. After all, I am emailing all this to you…

But how the hell are we supposed to get up each morning and eat and piss and work and send emails and talk to humans and just generally derive pleasure (or the illusion of pleasure) from anything if we are to subscribe to this way of thinking at all times? It’s exhausting. And if we truly believed it, we’d have all offed ourselves ages ago. Or maybe we’re just too scared? I simply do not know.

What I do know is this: I scroll through my nihilistic newsfeed daily. I consume it ad nauseam. You know, the way one drinks or has sex to obliterate consciousness and momentarily say goodbye to the cruel, cruel world without ever leaving it. And maybe, just maybe, Haruki Murakami was right when he said that “Everyone, deep in their hearts, is waiting for the end of the world to come.” Or maybe (and this is probably most likely) I’m just trying to ascribe significance to fuckall.