Why nothing matters

I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent. – Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)

In my dialogues there are no answers. But sometimes a question is the flash of an answer. – Edmund Jabès (1912-1991)

This is the revised text of a talk I gave at CANAL gallery, Haggerston on 18 March 2017 in response to the exhibition ‘What kind of hole am I?’ work by Bol Marjoram.

For the next ten minutes I want to talk to you about nothing. About two kinds or better, two aspects or senses of nothingness.

The first is instantiated by lacunae or absences, and conveniently enough, these are illustrated both literally and metaphorically, in and by the holes in Bol’s books.


As he says,

Please direct your attention towards the holes, it is the holes that matter.

The second kind of nothingness, presents me with a stiffer task, as I can do more than gesture towards what I might call ‘absolute’ nothingness: which I will identify with a kind of infinite potentiality, ultimate emptiness – a nothing that lacks nothing.

To see what I mean by that, accept my invitation to look through the holes and beyond.

So the first kind of nothingness goes hand in hand with what is felt to be lacking there. It’s a privation of whatever it may be that we might normally, perhaps tacitly expect to be present.

It can provide a kind of relief, as when the workman digging up the road with a pneumatic drill outside our bedroom one Saturday morning, stop to take a tea break. Rushing to the bar at the interval in the middle of an intense or agonizing theatrical performance.

It can show up as boredom: waiting for something to happen. Diverse responses to composer John Cage’s ‘4’33”’ (1952) a piece with no notes, range from the dismissive, through the perplexed to the contemplative. But what is essential to this piece is its boundedness. It is finite and must necessarily be performed within the four and half minutes – plus three seconds – of a concert programme. And of course, there is not total silence. Audience members breathe, cough, fidget, and giggle nervously between the movements. Like the two-minute silence at the cenotaph, its power lies not so much in itself but in that it disrupts and by doing so draws attention to the normal, the unnoticed, the conventional course of things.

Or this nothingness can present itself as dangerous, as when we have to mind the gap, or find ourselves in a state of anxious boredom, with nothing to be but a fertile market for snack foods to fill our bellies, and brain candy (Candy Crush Saga) to fill our minds.

Perhaps it is for this that nothing is more subversive than nothing: conspiracies of silence, silent protests, strikes, civil disobedience which is markedly non-action, the not-doing what is required by the state.

The nihilistic seventies movement known as punk took as its emblem the safety pin; re-pairing deliberate rips in clothes, holes emphasized by –visible mending. The material lacunae visualized a deliberate absence of musicianship, practice, denying the finished smooth surfaces demanded by the despised overproduced prog rock supergroups.

Or think about the revolutionary work of Lucio Fontana, such as Spatial Concept Waiting (Tate Modern) which is nothing more – and nothing less – than an incision of the canvas, puncturing the two-dimension into a three-dimensional space. In 1968 Fontana told an interviewer that, ‘my discovery was the hole and that’s it. I am happy to go to the grave after such a discovery’. The morbid, eschatological illusion may not be entirely accidental, as we shall see.

So often the presence of the missing is felt more strongly than if it were present. Valentine Schmidt’s beautiful photographs of the Berlin Olympic Village seem to me to be haunted by figures conspicuous by their absence: the triumphant athletes of an illusory and transitory Aryan master race and the ghosts of those – the aunts and uncles I never got to see – oblivious then to the death camps waiting for their arrival.

For the American rabbi Richard Rubenstein, the ultimate absence at Auschwitz, is that of a providential personal god, whose deafening silence in the face of horrendous evils announces the breaking of the thread uniting heaven and earth. He writes, ‘We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God.’

This death of God, understood perhaps as the same death of other grand narratives – continuous scientific progress, the triumph of rationality – is no less felt at the personal level.

Maybe we’ve experienced the very nadir of the ground beneath our feet giving way, when we experience an existential crisis, perhaps brought on by abandonment, bereavement, or betrayal.

In these moments we may fall into a pit of despair but if we have the grace, we can fall not into but through it, dropping down further into a reconfigured identity, a bottomless falling that is exhilarating, terrifying and beautiful. [The phrase ‘touching the void’, springs to mind]

There! Right there

There we find, if we don’t overlook it, an experience of what Rubenstein calls holy nothingness, a nothingness lacking nothing, an ‘indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence…the nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.’ Rubenstein is drawing on ancient mystical tropes. The Jewish Kabbalists spoke of Ayin, the Buddhists ‎śūnyatā, while the medieval Scottish philosopher John Duns Scotus (c.1266-1308) referred to that which ‘when it is thought through itself, neither is nor was nor will be. For in no existing thing is it understood, since it is beyond all things…When it is understood as incomprehensible on account of its excellence, it is not improperly called ‘nihil’ (that is ‘nothing’) ”.

So, this second aspect of nothingness is a nihil or nothing or emptiness so perfect, so unbounded, eternal and unchanging that it can contain an infinite space of possibility.

Deep down we may experience a yearning for this ultimate nothingness, the desire for annihilation which when conceived pathologically, Freud called Thanatos a death-instinct, a drive to return to the state of inanimacy in which we once rested from the origin of the cosmos.

If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal  reasons–becomes inorganic once again–then we shall be compelled to say that “the aim of all life is death” and, looking backwards, that “inanimate things existed before living ones”.

(Beyond the Pleasure Principle)

The metaphysical poet and preacher John Donne saw something dark, even satanic in nothingness, declaiming that while small could become great, acorns grow into oaks,

[A]bsolutely nothing, meerly nothing, is more incomprehensible than any thing, than all things together. It is a state (if a man may call it a state) that the Devil himself in the midst of his torments, cannot wish.

But when conceived positively, this desire can motivate a kind of self-transcendence or what the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss (following Spinoza) called Self-Realization! a movement out of the narrow ego, towards an identification with whole ecosystem in which we are constituted – or put more paradoxically perhaps, falling in love with life itself.

And what of the holes. Pay attention to the holes and then look through and beyond them. Perhaps they are not just lacunae, gaps in the materiality of the work, but portals. Step inside them. As the Sufi mystic Rumi writes:

People are going back and forth across the threshold
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.

Nothing but nothing, nothing else is inexhaustible. Nothing will never let you down. As Lao Tzu says of the ‘root of Heaven and Earth’ or the Tao or Way, ‘use will never drain it’.

In fact, for this sage, nothing is that without which


can be


Thirty spokes
Share one hub.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of Nothing that this can be put to use.

What kind of hole am I? Bol Marjoram runs alongside This Heaven: Valentine Schmidt until 1st April 2017 at CANAL60 De Beauvoir Crescent
London N1 5SB

020 7923 9211
0786 606 3663

open Thur – Sat 1-6pm during exhibitions
or by appointment


Burbea, Rob, Seeing That Frees: Meditations on emptiness and dependent arising (West Ogwell: Hermes Amara Publications, 2014)
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, Holocaust Theology: a reader, (Exeter : University of Exeter Press, 2015)
Donne, John, ‘Twenty-Six Sermons (25) Preached at the Spital’, 1622
Duclow, Donald F., ‘Divine Nothingness and Self-Creation in John Scottus Eriugena’ in his Masters of Learned Ignorance: Eriugena, Eckhart, Cusanus (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)
Freud, Sigmund ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVIII (Toronto: Hogarth Press, 1955) pp.7-64.
Jabès, Edmond, From the Book to the Book: An Edmond Jabès Reader (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1991)
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching trans. D.C. Lau, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003)
Marion, Jean-Luc, God Without Being (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991)