The coming of nothing

By Andrew Hass
14 Feb 2012

“Nothing will come of nothing.” We have all heard this phrase before. It takes many forms, and has a history that precedes Plato. But we know it most familiarly as the words of Shakespeare’s Lear, that king who foolishly turned the measure of his daughters’ love into pageantry and farce. When the daughter truest to her father refuses to say anything, and in fact, literally, says “nothing”, Lear draws on the ancient lineage of self-evident wisdom: nothing comes from nothing.

This is what the logicians call a tautology, and perhaps the purest of tautologies: since the formula A=A adds nothing to the argument, and simply loops us in a circle, so we end where we began, this nothing is most in play when itself is made the subject – nothing=nothing. Nothing could seem more obvious.

But there is something to the phrase that keeps coming back to haunt us, as if it contains an element of irresolution, something other than pure tautology. And keep coming back it does: philosophers, theologians, mystics and artists have all been fascinated with the concept of nothing, and with the ways we can and cannot speak about it. Something does seem to linger about as added, something that stands outside of the circularity of “nothing is naught” or “from nothing comes nothing”. Perhaps this is because the notion of nothing, whenever we try to articulate it, trips over the language we have at our disposal.

The phrase “nothing is…” is part not of a pure tautology but of a pure contradiction, since the verb to be, however conjugated, denotes existence, the very opposite of nothing. Likewise the verb “comes” denotes the arrival of something. If nothing were to come to us, what would have actually arrived? If it really is nothing, how can we say it comes?

All this would be merely semantic aerobics, of the kind that, at best, simply tones our mental muscles for issues that really matter, were it not for the fact that the notion of nothing has made a significant incursion into our modern world recently. We might think of modern mathematics, for which the concept of zero has become indispensable. (In fact, modern calculus, on which so much of our modern technology, economics, etc., is dependent, is inoperable without it.)

Or we might think of modern astrophysics, where the concept of vacuums and black holes are crucial. Even in the world of modern art and music, nothing has become an important “subject” – one thinks of John Cage’s notorious 4’33”, a composition of silence. Or Hans Freeberling, an artist who opened a gallery installation in 2001 entitled “The Art of Nothing”, which consisted of an empty gallery.

On a general cultural level, nothing makes its presence felt under the increasingly visible banner of “nihilism”. Now of course there are many kinds of nihilisms. There is the philosophical kind that says there is no such thing as reality, and everything is merely one big illusion. (Few in the West subscribe to this version, unless it comes in a form of Buddhism.) There is the existential kind that says life has no intrinsic meaning or value. There is the ethical kind that says all morals are ultimately a construction of power, and therefore no morality can ultimately or absolutely exist. There is the linguistic or semiological kind that says language or signs carry no meaning in and of themselves. There is the political kind that says no form of governance or social arrangement is viable without inherent and self-destructive violence, and therefore chaos or anarchy is inevitable. There is the economic kind that says there is no system available, locally or globally, that does not leave us in psycho-social impoverishment and with a self-divided spirit. Or there is the religious kind that says either God is dead, or faith in the divine has always been the stuff of superstition and delusion, and humans, metaphysically, are bound for nowhere. And in each of these cases, the nihilism, as general conception, can either assume that such a state is reality, or can desire to achieve such a state. (And both the assumption and the desire take manifold forms.)

Now why this growing prevalence of nothing and nihilism, in all their forms? Is it because, as many conservatives believe (“conservatism” being by definition an embattled stance against the coming of nothing in one form or another), we continue to witness the erosion of many of our most cherished, and “proven”, foundations of society, beginning with, most decisively, our belief systems?

Or is it, as many liberals believe (“liberalism” being by definition the emancipation from old and constraining forms in the name of a self-inherited freedom), the result of disaffection towards and disenfranchisement from the ruling structures of power, which leave the coerced and the down-trodden in despair?

Or is there something about the project of Modernity itself that, in its aggrandisement of the new, whether now in its neo-conservative or neo-liberal dress, has always invited the nothing perilously into our space and our experience?

I will have more to say about this last possibility in subsequent articles. But for now I think it important to consider that many of the events we are presently witnessing in our world, from fundamentalist terrorism, to the Arab Spring, to government suppression in Syria, China, etc., to the (perhaps now sublimated) Occupy Movement, to the worldwide austerity measures and the backlash they have provoked from the populace, to the implosion of Churches under the divisive issues of sexuality and gender – all of these come from a negative impetus. That is to say, there is something about the ruling states of affairs, whether political, economic, military, social or religious, that invokes, and increasingly invokes, the reaction of a certain gesture towards nothing, or making nil. More than a gesture, often – a force. But how can nothing be instigated as a force? Nothing is, well, nothing. Yet in the name of nothing, much seems to be happening.

Lear had a hard lesson to learn about the nature of this coming of nothing. He, the old sovereign, was to be reduced, out in the tempestuous emptiness of the heath, to what his Fool would call an “O” – “Now thou art an O without a figure. I am better than thou art now: I am a fool, thou art nothing” (I.iv.183-185). The old sovereignty was giving way to something new, and in a folly that, at the outset, precluded the wisdom of nothing, he refused to see the truth of that new something – his one true daughter, Cordelia – until it was too late, and too late for all. Something might have come from nothing, if he was “Fool” enough to see it.

Nothing, we might say, gets bad press, and deservedly. For nothing strips away, tears down, erases. And we want a positive society. Yet there is always a substantive way to render nothing, and make it work for something. We see this even in the claim that “nothing gets bad press”: differently construed, we also know that, in today’s media-saturated world, no matter how negative certain press coverage might be, no publicity is bad publicity, since even bad press is somehow good for the cause. This is part of the perverse state of the world we live in, and may be the very thing we wish to eradicate. But to do so we’d have to negate the negation. And this is why nothing is becoming more and more a feature of our Late Modern world.

See also: 'The O of Giotto: perfect nothingness?' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16655 and 'The squaring of zero' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16735

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© Andrew W. Hass teaches Religion at the University of Stirling, with specialty crossovers in Philosophy and Literature. He moved to Scotland after five years at as Visiting Assistant Professor in the Honors College of the University of Houston, Texas, USA. He is originally from Vancouver, Canada.


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