Nihilism Noir and The Sopranos

The nearly irremediable darkness of The Sopranos is redeemed by moments of piercing light into the moral psychology of its recurring characters. Its darkness comes from its nihilism. Film noir and, by extension, TV noir, is anchored in nihilism, a "values-denying and life-negating vision" that has cast its shadow upon modern Western culture since at least the nineteenth century and most conspicuously in the postwar years of the twentieth century. The view that nothing matters, that meaning and value have collapsed, is given dramatic expression in the activities of the show's protagonist, Tony Soprano, and his henchmen in organized crime. In the essay "The Sopranos, Film Noir, and Nihilism" (from which this characterization of nihilism comes), Kevin L. Stoehr sees perspectivism as the cause or ground of our loss of belief in objective truth. "The idea of perspectivism, the belief that all knowledge and experience results from our subjective and personal viewpoints," he writes, "leads to a subsequent rejection of our belief in objective, universal truths and our conviction in values that are intrinsic or valid in themselves, apart from merely subjective interests and preferences." Of course, the adoption of perspectivist views of meaning, truth, and value may be a consequence of the loss of belief in universal truths and objective values, and not the other way around. That is to say, the acceptance of perspectivism may be the effect rather than the cause of our declining belief in universal truth and objective values. What is more, the perspectivist thesis itself can be brought under closer scrutiny. For even if perspectivism is the cause of the loss of belief in objective reality and values, we still want to know whether the perspectivist position is itself justified. Is it just another position that might be rejected in favor of a non-perspectivist one? This complex question lies at the heart of recent philosophical discussions of relativism and objectivity.

Of even greater interest in the present context is the question of whether nihilism and perspectivism are even coherent positions. If to say that something matters is to express one's concern with that thing, then to say that "nothing matters" is presumably to express one's unconcern about absolutely everything. To say, with the nihilist, that "nothing matters, not even oneself" would seem to express one's unconcern with everything, including those merely subjective interests and preferences that give content to the perspectivist approach in the first place. Tony Soprano is not a nihilist in this sense, for he is very much concerned with his own interests and preferences: he wants power and the respect that power brings; he wants success in his criminal enterprises; and he wants the pleasures of good food and sex. This is by no means all there is to Tony's complex psychological makeup, as Stoehr shows in his illuminating section on animals and animosity. But on any ordinary construal of meaning and value, the annihilation of values has not happened to Tony Soprano.22

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment