All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 1995

The New Nihilism

Terror Culture Is Growing in Force and Articulation

Mr. Weiss is a fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, and an associate at the Law Firm of Daniel & Lezar, L.L.P.

On the streets of New York City, not far from the complacent New Age ambiance of the touristy West Village cafes and uptown sushi bars, terror culture is afoot. Arising from post-modernism, terror culture is the “voice” of a new movement. With growing force and articulation, not to mention federal funding, this terrible voice echoes from Columbia’s Philosophy Hall to the trendy coffee bars of SoHo and the squatters’ “apartments” of Manhattan’s midtown. This new movement has been called the paradigm of the twenty-first century, but its philosophy signals nothing less than the death of civilization.

Although the stench of death is strongest below 14th Street, the signs of it are everywhere. From phone sex ads and the club listings in underground newspapers, a careful observer glimpses the cultural terrorists. Ghoulish books called Hunting Humans and The Atrocity Exhibition fill their shelves. Faces of Death (a movie available at most video rental stores containing spliced footage of actual killings) and hard-core pornography sit next to their VCRs. Tattoos and piercing deface their bodies. Dressed in torn jeans or in the all-black uniform of their movement, they frequent the nightclubs, galleries, and bookstores of the City.

What is truly frightening about terror culture is that it is gaining ground, making its way into the mainstream. One of the bestselling books and most popular American movies in recent years, Silence of the Lambs, was decidedly terroristic. The serial killer, Hannibal Lecter (played by Academy-award winner Anthony Hopkins), was transformed into a Sherlock Holmes-type hero. On television, talk shows and real-life crime shows popularize violence and fringe lifestyles. After the Jeffrey Dahmer case, a California trading-card distributor released serial killer cards for kids. Rock album covers are no longer for the squeamish and many would shock a forensic physician.

College fashion is ugly. Women sport black hair and nose rings, wear men’s “Doc Marten’s” shoes or cowboy boots, ripped jeans, and t-shirts sporting bizarre, horrifying, or obscene logos. According to Lola, a pink-haired, nose-ringed student at New York’s Parsons School of Art, “Postmodernism is the rage in art schools. Everybody dresses in black. It’s fashion.” In fact, every person I talked to, whether a self-proclaimed devotee of terror culture or not, conceded that terror culture has affected the contemporary cultural scene. Terror historian Arthur Kroker describes the new post-modernism as “playing at your local theater, TV studio, office tower, doctor’s office, or sex outlet.”[1]

Borrowing much from the relativists, terror culture has at its core radical nihilism, a complete subversion and rejection of value. Terror culture goes beyond the relativist observation that all concepts of value or quality are contingent and socially constructed and ultimately espouses a theory of anti-value.

From the Graves of Academe

To understand terror culture one must look to its genesis in academic post-modernism. Post-modernism, as its name suggests, is first and foremost a reaction to modernity. “Modernity” represents a belief in progress and in the value of art, science, and religion. The modern era, according to historian Arnold Toynbee, is “an unbroken vista of progress toward Earthly Paradise” full of idealism and technological optimism.[2] The modernist world is orderly and logical, and man can ultimately conquer it through reason.

Post-modernism, like relativism, rejects modernity’s premise that human beings will achieve a progressive realization of truth through human endeavor. As Professor Todd Gitlin of UC Berkeley expressed it, “Post-Modernism derides the search for depth as mere nostalgia.”[3] The postmoderns reject teleological belief systems; they reject the notions of progress, truth, and beauty because these notions only make sense inside our culture’s current way of looking at things.

Employing these ideas, a painting movement has emerged in New York City which rejects all distinctions between bad and good art by employing tasteless images, inept drawing, poor craftsmanship, and unschooled color. The movement’s 1978 show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art had the title “Bad Painting.”[4] As expressed by Julie Wachtel, a post-modern artist whose works consist of traces of cartoon figures from cheap greeting cards directly onto canvas, post-modernism rejects the very “idea of quality.”[5]

The war on civilization has certainly begun on the streets of New York. On Broadway, near Broome Street, vendors sell disembodied mannequin parts for $5 apiece (3 for $12). On St. Marks at Second, sidewalk artists hawk obscene and grotesque pictures: an American flag above which sits a half-clothed stripper in a Grim Reaper’s cowl, mountains of skulls against a postnuclear backdrop, headless businessmen, rotting corpses in bondage. At Art 54 at 54 Grand, black and white lithographs of mangled children (triple-sized) and fallen angels sell for $3,500. The curator tells me that the pieces sell very well. “I get a lot of interest in them. I like them. The subject matter may be a little much, but I think that’s the point. People want to be a little bit shocked.”

St. Mark’s Books at 9th and 3rd advances the war on civilization. The store is full of urban primitives (the vanguard of the terror culture movement), all in black, perusing magazine racks of obscure, photocopied magazines on anarchism, obscenity, terror, and, of course, every conceivable brand of rock and roll. On the front rack are some of the best sellers: The Atrocity Exhibition, The Torture Garden, Assassination Rhapsody, Freaks, and Hannibal Lecter, My Father. Others include the complete Marquis de Sade collection, Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch, Macho Sluts, and, perching sheepishly, John Bradshaw’s New Age self-help guide, Iran John. Readers sit surrounding a rack full of Singin’ Dose Anti-Psychotic Blues #6, published in Brooklyn. This magazine, edited by “Frank,” espouses mass murder (not serial killing, which Frank calls “weak”) and has sections on murder technique and records (17 at McDonald’s in Fresno). A longer-haired customer wearing a tweed trench coat tells me he enjoys Frank’s writing. “I got into this stuff through photography. The interesting thing is that it keeps going and going. It’s a lifestyle; it’s something you have to do. I’m trying to do crime stuff now. Freelance. Like Weegee [the nom de guerre for Prohibition-era crime photographer Arthur Fellig] only more real.”

Body Piercing

Another front of terror culture’s “war on everything” involves body mutilations—disfiguring, scarring, and piercing. In its upstairs quarters on 5th Avenue, the Gauntlet is the premiere piercing center in New York. In its first three months it performed over 800 piercings (roughly 14 a day). Its offices are inoffensive and even stylish. Minimalist couches and glass counters sit atop polished hardwood floors. The first tip that this is not another trendy midtown hair boutique comes from the contents of the counter. It is filled with metal rings obviously not designed for ears. Also lying under the glass are needles, surgical forceps, jawbones, neo-Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting genital mutilations, and what looks like chain mail. On the other side of the room is a table containing copies of P.F.I.Q. (Piercing Fans International Quarterly), a sort of combination hard-core pornography/how-to guide for amateur piercers. Also on the table is Androgyny and a copy of a tattoo magazine, Body Art. The piercing rooms at the Gauntlet are extremely clean, better looking than the average doctor’s office. It has been inspected twice by the Health Department, passing easily both times. The piercing is done without anesthesia. Some piercings hurt no more than installing an earring. Others, Dan says, are “out of body experiences.”

Dan, the skin-headed, multi-pierced, highly tattooed manager and master piercer at the Gauntlet (“the only fully qualified piercer in town”), gave an assessment of the piercing movement. “Most of the piercings we do are the three N’s: noses, nipples, and navels. But we’ll do almost anything—genitals, eyebrows, whatever.” Dan says that his clientele is not all alternative. “We get all different types of people from all walks of life, from Wall Street to the East Village.”

Publication and Performance

Terror culture even has its own publication. Semiotext(e) is the definitive guide to terror culture. Semiotext(e) is published by Autonomedia, a co-operative run by Columbia University’s Jim Fleming and Sylvere Lotringer. It is headquartered in the French Department of Columbia University, although it has recently expanded to additional offices in Brooklyn. In 1978, Lotringer, co-editor and French professor, decided to change the focus of the magazine, to make it more “relevant.” Thus Semiotext(e) in its current incarnation is, according to Adam Parfrey, editor of Apocalypse Culture, “kinda anarchistic, heretic, postpunk, post-situationalist, cutting edge subversive-type stuff.”

I met Jim Fleming in the old factory building in Brooklyn which houses Semiotext(e) and, incidentally, serves as Fleming’s home. Fleming came aboard in 1979, shortly after the decision to refocus the magazine. Topics covered by the magazine include animal sex, child sex, morbid sex, violent sex, and the cryptically named “critical sex.” The schizo issue celebrated schizophrenia and included lyrics from the punk rock song Teenage Lobotomy and the Boston Declaration of Psychiatric Oppression. The magazine’s writers include a who’s-who of the avant-garde: John Cage, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Kathy Ackter, Phillip Glass, and William Borroughs. Recent issues of Semiotext(e) have sold more than 30,000 copies.

As far as avant-garde art goes, preeminent in the creation of terror culture was National Endowment for the Arts “problem child” Karen Finley. Finley’s often federally funded performance art has been distinguished by Artforum magazine as “obscenity in its purest form.”[6] In her taxpayer-financed act Finley smears food into her genitals and defecates on stage.[7] Finley’s show includes descriptions of violent and perverse sex acts with priests, children, relatives, and the handicapped.[8]

Following Finley’s lead, former pornography performer Annie Sprinkle now does her thing in artistic settings such as New York’s avant-garde and federally funded performance space, The Kitchen.[9] The Kitchen also featured the extremely violent pornographic art films of Richard Kern, best known for his Death Trip films.[10] These performances graphically illustrate the terror culture agenda. These artists violently attack the idea of value, championing anti-value. They do not claim that what they do is not pornographic or obscene. Nor do they claim it is beautiful. It is nihilist, trying to tear down the dominant culture at all costs, attacking all fronts at once.

And the nihilist project is working. One can see its effectiveness clearly while sitting in the Life Cafe at 10th and B at 2 a.m. on a Friday night. The Life is a favorite New York University hangout. (New York University, especially its Cinema Studies program, attracts many aspiring nihilists.)

Terror culture is taking hold in the cities and is spreading to the suburbs and small towns. It wreaks moral and physical death. It does not take psychological expertise to realize that immersing oneself in pictures of mutilated children, hard-core pornography, and self-mutilation is not conducive to a healthy mental state.

Ominous Parallel

Much of the experience of modern-day New York echoes another metropolis, another time. Consider the impressions of a local writer describing the hip part of town:


. . . it was a den of unabashed perversity; one went for instance to night spots … to watch men in drag dance together . . . or . . . for a glimpse of lesbian sex chez soi…. If it was a bout of whipping you wanted, the whores parading around … would gratify your desire. They wore high, bright-red riding-boots as an advertisement for their specialty, and some used to carry short whips in order to narrow any margin of doubt to a minimum.[11]

This was not last week’s New York City, but a description of Weimar Germany circa 1928. The cultural parallels are striking in their sheer extremity. A recent documentary of New York’s underground scene, Mondo New York, has been compared to Weimar decadence,[12] and there can be little grounds to argue. The question that confronts one is how can two places, so separated by their respective histories, have so many similarities? Weimar Germany followed a tremendous military defeat and evolved against a backdrop of omnipresent political anarchy. Modern-day Manhattan (with all its problems), by contrasts, enjoys relative social stability, a comparatively high standard of living, and, is still the foremost city of the world’s only superpower. Yet Weimar and New York, despite their differences, share a common philosophical milieu: philosophical relativism.

The troops of England, France, and the United States, could not harm Germany as greatly as the Berlin relativists. In Manhattan the relativists have had over a quarter century to work.

Unfortunately, we all know the end to the Weimar story. That is not to say that our destiny will be the same. It is merely to say that the risk exists; parallel cultural phenomena suggest parallel political development. Indeed, the United States may have already exceeded the Weimar decadence and the concomitant demoralization of our common culture; at least in Weimar, no one proposed federal funding of the anti-culture. []

1.   David Cook and Arthur Kroker, The Post Modern Scene ii (1991).

2.   Quoted in Mary Marien, “Life After Post-Modernism,” The Christian Science Moniter, Jan. 2, 1990, p. 16.

3.   Todd Gitlin, “Hip-Deep in Postmodernism,” The New York Times, Book Review, Nov. 6, 1988, p. 1.

4.   John Russel, Review of Bad Art, New York Times, Jan. 16, 1978, p. 25

5.   Levin, “Seasons Greetings?”, Village Voice, Dec. 21, 1985, P. 81.

6.   Carr, Karen Finley, ARTFORUM, Nov. 1988, p. 148.

7.   Robert Knight, The National Endowment for the Arts; “Misusing Taxpayers’ Money,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder #803, Jan 18, 1991.

8.   Carr, “Unspeakable Practices: Unnatural Acts,” Village Voice, June 24, 1986, p. 17.

9.   Gregg Easterbrook, “Risque? No!, Some Art’s Just Lousy,” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 1992, p. M2.

10.   Amy Adler, “Post Modern Art and the Death of Obscenity Law,” 99 Yale Law Journal 1359, 1370 (1990).

11.   Egon Larsen, “Weimar Eyewitness,” 94-95 (1976).

12.   Lynn Darling, “Atop the New York Trash Pile,” The New York Times, April 22, 1988, at Weekend 7.