How a Book on Nihilism Ended Up on Jay-Z’s Back and Glenn Beck’s Show

Imagine this: You, like many of our readers, work tirelessly to write volumes on subjects that only a handful people will read. Unless your name is Judith Butler or Slavoj Zizek, chances are that nobody cares about your latest thoughts on Friedrich Nietzsche.

But then one day, you notice a model wearing a shirt adorned with your book title. Then you’re casually wasting your time on YouTube and Jay-Z is now wearing a jacket also adorned with your book.

That’s exactly what happened to Eugene Thacker, a Media Studies professor at The New School University, who wrote a book on horror and nihilism called “In the Dust of this Planet” in 2011 published by Zero Books. While the book received generally positive reviews on various message boards, it was anything but a New York Time’s Bestseller. And then – it was everywhere.

It started when some words eerily reminiscent of Thacker’s shows up in HBO’s hit show “True Detective.”

“I’m what’s called a pessimist,” the show’s main character proclaims. “We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory experience and feeling programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when in fact everybody is nobody.”

When asked what inspired the main character, writer Nic Pizzolatto cited, among other books, “In the Dust of this Planet.”

After that, the clothes showed up. Icelandic artist Gardar Eide Einarsonn collaborated with clothing brand BLK DNM to put out fashion with “bold messages.”

Next came the celebrities. Lily Allen posted this to her Instagram and this shot showed up in Jay-Z and Beyonce’s video for “Run.”

jay-z dust of this planet
NPR’s “Radiolab,” investigated the matter, talking to both Thacker and Simon Critchley, who explained that nihilism has always been a staple of counter-culture. They even talked to Jay-Z’s costume designer, who went through her rationale for picking the jacket.

A costume, she argues, is “like a conversation.” That conversation, in the Jay-Z video was that this man, a “sovereign,” had the world on his back and acted as if he was completely unaware or, to quote the Radiolab host, “didn’t care.”

To top everything off – Glenn Beck discovered the NPR podcast and quickly declared a liberal plot to disseminate eugenics and nihilism via pop culture.

Beck dedicated over 8 minutes of his show back in September to the topic of “nihilism” and how conservatives need to be up in arms about it.

Of course, Beck in his segment could never admit to listening to something run by NPR, and is quick to note our tax-dollars funded the program. Luckily, Beck’s producer listens so he doesn’t have to.

Thacker, by the way, had never heard of Beck, which I find utterly confounding.

There’s a flurry of absurd claims in Beck’s diatribe: Thacker works at a school founded by progressive educators who invented eugenics, or something. Beck was probably referring to New School founder and  progressive John Dewey who never endorsed genetics, and was even arguably against it.

“When you take Darwin,” Beck continues, “and couple it with nihilism and then progressivism you can kill people if it’s for the good of the collective.” Note, “good of the collective” and “nihilism” in hilarious juxtaposition. Beck then posits this as the logic of Nazi genocide – a ridiculous claim  rebuked by even Walter Sobchack when he noted: “Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

Not to mention that The New School’s second spiritual founding happened with The New School in Exile by a bunch of academics trying to escape Nazi persecution. But I digress.

“Even if you are a control freak, one thing you learn when you write a book and send it out is that it has a life of its own,” Thacker said. “It’s open to interpretation.”

So is there a liberal plot to spread nihilism? No, not the least because most radical scholars detest both liberal and conservative politics (I can’t speak for Thacker), and because Nietzsche is more often-than-not taken out of context to justify conservative racism. For many philosophers, being taken up by pop culture is more a sign of defeat than a cause of celebration.

When I reached out to Thacker, he didn’t have much to say.

“I suppose that more people have worn my book than have read it,” he remarked.


  • Dick

    I’m curious, why debunk Glenn Beck? Do you honestly believe that folk who take Glenn seriously are sitting around, post broadcast, thinking, “Gee, I wonder how Progressives will rebut Glenn today?” These days everyone seems to be preaching to the choir. I’m almost positive that Beck’s choir doesn’t overlap into the Progressive choir.

    Thacker was actually a bit late to this latest Nihilist soiree anyway. Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against The Human Race got there first & I’m pretty sure that Ligotti isn’t associated with any Progressive or Conservative movement. I do believe he spent years trapped in corporate America, writing short stories on the side that have acquired a cult following but I doubt that they made him rich. True Detective’s writer has even mentioned that he plagiar….ooops…borrowed bits from Ligotti’s book also.

    Glenn was always a picker & a chooser when it comes to facts, but so is everyone these days. In Glenn’s defense (I don’t believe I just wrote that), Glenn’s product is paranoia. He has to continually come up with something for his audience to worry about so they send him money. If he can throw in a few references to Liberals & Nazis then all the better.
    I’m fairly sure that the people who believe him won’t believe you.

    • teacher Myke

      I’m terribly late to the party!! However, I’m fascinated by the conversation. Just heard the NPR segment and thought it was new. Then I found this article in the search for the author, and was even more intrigued!! So rare to find intellectuals commenting on articles, or writing the articles in the first place.

      Usually, the schlock tends more toward the Glenn Beck variety.

      Anyway, thanks for the tip on Ligotti, now I have 2 new reads to catch up on. Yes, I’m sure there are 100s but there is only so much time in the day. And I have 2 jobs.

      Anyway, thank you for your insightful contribution. Although, yes, defending Glenn Beck is preposterous to say the least. But here’s the larger point: isn’t the foundation of Nihilism: that life is all meaningless, exactly that, the foundation?

      It’s obvious that Nothing ultimately has a purpose to it’s existence. The entire Universe and everything in it exists purely to serve itself, there is no ultimate purpose to things.

      It’s only when one focused on the Earth, and it’s ecosystems that any “purposes” start to emerge. And that has largely to do w/ symbiotic relationships.