Sunday, December 26, 2010

What is nothing?

In order to have a positive relationship with "nothing," it's key to understand what "nothing" means. As the classical philosophers were fond of saying, "nothing" doesn't exist. That is, we should not reify "nothing." To say that an empty set contains nothing is not to say that it has a population of 1-- if that were the case, it would not be an empty set. There is no such thing out in the world that we rightly call "nothing."

"Nothing" is useful to me primarily as a placeholder word, to point at my experience of emptiness, lacking, absence. None of these words-- nothing, emptiness, lacking, absence-- refer to actual existing things. They always point to the space in which I might have otherwise expected or hoped for something. These words stand in that space and represent it without filling it; they represent the very emptiness of that space. To feel an emptiness is to feel oneself defined (and some might add, tormented) by absences. I consider the word "nothing" important because it expresses the presence of absence as a recurring aspect of human experience.

"The presence of absence"-- I can make you understand this first of all as a sad phrase, although I hope later to also show you the positivity and power in it. But for now-- "the presence of absence" is surely understood by anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a treasured possession, or the inability to know the right words or actions in a difficult moment. Absence can be palpable in our experienecs, even if "absence" is not an actual, palpable thing.

My examples in the paragraph above show up in every life, and so I believe that anyone can understand why I make such a big deal out of "nothing." Humans, as beings of both limit and potential, are greatly defined by what is not. And so "nothing" (and its family-- emptiness, lack, absence) is a word/concept that each individual would do well to face directly and ponder intimately.


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  2. Hi Matthew,

    I am not sure how familiar you are with my writing about false pregnancy, but it seems relevant to your interests.

    Wikipedia defines Pseudocyesis as "the appearance of clinical and/or subclinical signs and symptoms associated with pregnancy when the person or animal is not pregnant." And these signs arise when there is a need for something where there is nothing.

    To me this is so fascinating. Just as fascinating to me is the idea of the cenotaph, the empty symbolic grave, such as the tomb for the unknown soldier amongst many others, where we create the hollow something knowingly understanding of the "nothing" inside of it.

  3. Thanks chrislibby, for adding pseudocyeis and cenotaph to the conversation. Both are rich metaphors for a 'present absence.'

    I was thinking of something like pseudocyesis the other day, while contemplating the phrase "pregnant silence," which is often used to describe a dramatic pause in conversation, or the expectation of meaning many individuals have when facing the silent cosmos. The parallel of pseudocyesis, in this case, would be something like a "barren silence"-- the expectation of meaning or message when none is forthcoming. I guess the difference is that pseudocyesis will never produce a child; but the sheer will for meaning when confronting a barren silence can often provoke the creation of meaning by the individual (while the cosmos continue their silence). And so... perhaps religion/meaning is a "virgin birth"? The child of meaning-hopeful humans and a meaning-barren reality? Tell me if that you find that an image of beauty or despair.

    As for cenotaphs, that really is a great metaphor, especially since I am developing something akin to death-of-God theology. There are some interesting similarities and differences between the empty tomb and the empty throne though. But that will have to wait-- first of all because I'm hungry, and second of all because it seems like excellent material for poetry.

  4. Hey Matt,

    Very interesting ideas and I'm glad I found your blog! I'm also interested in absences, silences, (and I would add spectres and ghosts) in my own work...also I'm Abby's brother, Josh, nice to meet you. I have a few thoughts and questions:

    Are you positing a universal theory of nothingness? Doesn't nothingness, to be socially recognizable, must have form? At the very least, it requires a mind capable of conceptualizing nothingness, and that requires signs capable of representing that idea not only to me, but to relevant social others as well. My thoughts--whether of nothingness or that which structures it--are mediated by signs; and signs (whether linguistic or otherwise) are only half "my own" (in that, while they exist as mediators for my own, private thought, they are already saturated by the meanings with which they are collectively imbued. This means that any performance, or any discussion of nothingness, or even about the discussion of nothingness, must be recognizable as conveying the lack they convey (even if only to myself, silently, in my own mind)

    The problem of "nothing" thus seems akin to me to the problem of sincerity, or the problem that different strands of puritanism experienced in their anti-ritual polemics against Catholics--their performances of "sincere piety" still required semiotic forms capable of expressing that form of peity to others. And those others required (and require) criteria for determining what was/is "insincere", "rote", or "untrustworthy." Absence, then must be a palpable thing--if only that it requires communicative form capable of transmitting its presence.

    What, then, might a comparative study of nothing look like? What could we learn from such a study? If recognizability is central to any theory of lack, and recognizability depends on a world of social others capable of understanding the signs through which lack is expressed, then is there not a danger in positing nothing as a universal?

    I know this is perhaps an unconventional way to say hello, but I was compelled by your post, and wanted to pose these questions.

    Hope you are well, and we missed you at the wedding!

  5. Hi Josh--

    Thanks for posting, and MAZEL TOV!

    I must admit that your interest in 'nothing' seems somewhat adjacent to my own. While my blog has been concerned entirely with 'nothing,' it's only because I've been focusing my development of an atheist spirituality so far on the experience of God's absence that continually confronts me as a relatively new atheist. I am not sure yet if 'nothing' will be the centerpiece of my atheist spirituality.

    I am similarly unsure if my intent is to provide a universal theory of nothing. I do believe that there are certain aspects of experience that have a tendency to reveal space/emptiness in one's life-- a foiled expectation, or a bounded space that catches one's attention (this came to me last night at dinner, involving the small bubble of space in an otherwise-full bottle of tabasco). But I'm sure there are other ways to think or recognize nothing, and I'm not attempting to corner the market.

    Your questions interest me because your focus on nothing and language seems to analyze the task before me in writing my last post-- that is, explaining to my audience what I think 'nothing' is. In this post, I'm struggling to make a private experience understandable to anyone, and thus running into some of the challenges you lay out. But I still don't feel equipped to begin answering your questions-- for the purposes of my blog, I'd rather turn around and simply ask: Could you connect with my initial attempt at explaining nothing? It's not the full expression I'm hoping to develop, but it was my first attempt, and I'm eager to hear if others find meaning, or reflections of their experience of nothing/space/emptiness in my description.

    Thanks so much for posting! Very bummed I did not get to meet and celebrate with you this weekend.

  6. I'm very bummed about that too, but there will be other occasions I'm sure. And thank you for the Mazal tov! a shaynem dank.

    I've re-read your posts a few times, and I think the part of your discussion that speaks most directly to me is the example of the "pregnant silence" within the space of interaction. In a comment you posted above, you talk about how silence can provoke the creation of meaning by the individual through the expectation of meaning when none is forthcoming. In that articulation, my impression is that silence, or nothingness, is less of a space constituted by lack, but a departure point for the production of meaning with other people; and that seems like a very productive space for questions about how we might produce different forms of interaction with others. What is that "expectation" to produce meaning? Who's expectation is it and who is deemed accountable to fulfill it? I think I'm at my best as a person when I'm asking those kinds of questions.

    But I feel a tension between that notion of absence, and the idea articulated at other points that seem to describe nothingness as already constituted. You discuss the potential that may lie in the experience of the absence of God, the absence of meaning, or something that bears the trace of a lost loved one (the smell of a room, or article of clothing); but how long does it take before that nothing becomes "something?" What do we do--spiritually, ethically, emotionally--when we have populated those spaces of the unmarked with new meaning?

    I think in my life, that's an ongoing and difficult tension...between preserving absence and the urge to produce meaning (or the inevitability of meaning's encroachment). But maybe it is the space between preservation/production that is the fruitful site for thought, meditation, or spiritual practice?

    Let me know if this speaks to your ideas...and thanks for responding to my post! I hope we get to meet in a less mediated forum soon.