A Little Something on Nothing

‘Nothing’ is a very familiar and common word. It is also a word prone to a type of confusion and mistaken use. It has, as a word and a concept, a tendency to become ‘something’. And when ‘nothing’ becomes something in its own right, it becomes nonsensical and absurd. As an articulated abstract and generic negation it is not a thing.  But the understanding of nothing as abstract negation is a developed and conscious thought. ‘Nothing’ may appear and operate in the undeveloped, unwary, or unreflective mind as a concrete ‘something’.

‘Nothing’ is a negative indefinite pronoun. It is a negative. As a negative or a negation it is, as Plato and Aristotle said of negative statement in general, dependent upon prior affirmation for its usefulness, its specificity, and its clarity. As a negation, it suffers from a lack of specificity and a lack of boundedness even in the abstract; it is, therefore, difficult to understand, to remember, and to think.[1] The usefulness and determinateness of a negation depends upon prior affirmation. For the mind and for the organism there has to be some history of ‘yes’ before there can be a meaningful ‘no’.

‘Nothing’ is also an indefinite. The abstract affirmation upon which this negation depends is an indefinite: a ‘thing’ is an object of any kind, physical or mental.

And ‘nothing’ is also a pronoun, a pro-form noun that may take the place of a noun and perform the function of a noun. And a noun is simply the name of a thing.

‘Nothing’ both suffers and benefits from its lack of specificity or boundedness. It lacks specificity and boundedness in its form as a negation: as a negation it is both non-specific and dependent. It’s prior affirmation, its ‘thingness’ is also non-specific and perfectly general or generic. Its lack of specificity and its generalness lend it practical and common use. But, this same lack of specificity also makes it difficult to understand and to remember except perhaps as a thing in its own right. The stickiness of ‘nothing’, its ready commonness, is an absurd unreality. ‘Nothing’ is never a thing, but in some minds and instances, it may act or behave as if it were a concrete ‘something’.

‘Nothing’ is also a fine example of negation: as a negation, in practical and logical use, it as important as an affirmation. However, in psychology, in memory, and in understanding it depends upon, it recedes behind and even hides behind a greater presence of affirmation.

‘Nothing’ is notoriously slippery and difficult to grasp and handle as a concept. ‘Nothing’ is also so common in use that we may pass over its strangeness without pause. Both its slipperiness and its commonness are worth pondering and laboring over.

Linguists point out that the logical symmetry of affirmation and negation is belied by their asymmetry in actually existing natural language. Affirmation is by far the greater part of natural language. Negation in natural language appears as a marked and dependent child of affirmation. And yet, the very act of judgment depends as much upon negation as affirmation. Negation and the negative, however vital, slip through the fingers that might apprehend them.

‘Nothing’ as a thing in its own right is either perfectly abstract or perfectly absurd, or both. Philosophers often delight in the paradoxes of the abstract and the absurd. And philosophers have long promoted inquiry into the state/quality/measure of ‘nothing’ into a subject of inquiry and a term, ‘nothingness’.[2] The clear mountain air of ‘nothingness’ is not my concern here. My focus here is on on the personal and psychological uses of and encounters with ‘nothing’. I’m concerned here with humbler and more common fare than only the high peaks of philosophical inquiry into ‘nothingness’ and determinate negation. How does a human being, a person, experience or conceive of ‘nothing’. Are there some useful generalizations that I may make about ‘nothing’ that apply broadly to the personal and practical life of myself and my readers?

I have in mind and I will focus here on a rich source for the study of ‘nothing’ and ‘negation’ in natural language, the dramatic tragedy of King Lear. I also have in mind a range of common uses of, concepts of, and words for ‘nothing’ across the ages. We would expect and we do find that many are the uses of and senses of ‘nothing’. There is also a rich technical discussion of ‘nothing’ and negation in psychoanalysis and for the most part I will avoid the finer distinctions of their specialized vocabulary in favor of making broader points about ‘nothing’.  My rough divide is between the life serving encounter with ‘nothing’ and the destructive and concrete appearances of ‘nothing’. Given a prior health and liveliness of person, ‘nothing’ may appear as a life and spirit enhancing counterpoint, contrast, rest, pause, or opening. Given prior privation in a person or personality, ‘nothing’ may be without possibility of observation or representation, or such a ‘nothing’ may be concretized.[3] Concretized and literalized ‘nothing’ is life-destroying and is evidence of life destruction and self destruction.

King Lear, the play starts in a kind or form of ‘nothing’ and the play ends in a ‘nothing’. The action of the play starts from a declaration of ‘nothing’ from Cordelia and the action of the play ends in Lear’s declaration of ‘negation’ at Cordelia’s death. The play could be said to be a dramatic, tragic confrontation with ‘nothing’ in many of its senses.

Even before Cordelia sets the play into dramatic action, there is, at the beginning, an implicit ‘nothing’ present in Lear. The form of ‘nothing’ that sets the stage for King Lear is the ‘nothing’ of vanity. Lear at the beginning of the play is the very figure of vanity. He stands alone, in a self-satisfied display of meaningless pomp. Vanity as a thing in its own right, without apparent contrast, is the pointless self-celebration of a grandiose narcissist before a mirror. The easiest sense of vanity to remember, to handle and hold on to, is vanity as a one-sided retreat into a false refuge of surface and image. The why of such a retreat into vanity is the stuff of psychoanalysis. Such a retreat from real life and from relationship is an absurdity. How could someone, how could anyone attempt to mirror the non-existence of a concrete nothing?

The emptiness and the absurdity of such a life is there for all to see. However, a person trapped in vanity cannot see or represent the emptiness or the absurdity that they are. A person trapped in vanity has made a nothing of themselves. They have take refuge in a shadow. Vanity, in this sense, appears as the false and absurd refuge of a person deprived of basic, living sense.

It is vanity in the sense of a false nothing that a fool or a fop clings to that Lear so clearly performs at the beginning of the play. The most easily graspable and most handy form and sense of vanity is the foolish and petty pomp of Lear himself. But a greater sense of vanity as nothing and as hopelessness surrounds the figure of Lear. It fills the court of Lear and gives his words and his air an emptiness. Lear, as pomp without a point, is nothing surrounded by nothing. The play itself also seems to ask, “what is the point and purpose of a life?” Vanity, in a more global sense, including purposelessness and hopelessness, is the first ‘nothing’ of King Lear.

Other senses of vanity than pomp without a point, still in use, are harder to remember because they depend upon contrast for their meaning. The mind tends to remember the affirmative pair of a contrast, as the negative pair recedes and is forgotten . As ‘nothing’ does, vanity has other meanings and uses. Vanity has its roots in the Latin word ‘vanitas’. Vanitas as the Romans used it is a rich word that signified falsity and nothingness as well as vanity in its more concrete sense of vainglory. Vanus, the root of vanitas, as much signfied nothing or naught as falsity, deceit or meaninglessness.

Vanus and vanitas may be said to derive from the observation and representation of the relation between human experience and its limits, its relations, and its reality. Vanus, in its sense as pure nothing, only meaningfully exists in counterpoint to truth or reality. Vanity here appears in contrast to reality.

Cicero makes fine contrapuntal use of the word ‘vanitas’ in a passage that presages some of the concerns of King Lear. In book 3 of his “Tusculan Disputations,” subtitled “On Moderating the Grief of the Mind” and on emotion, he begins his disputation:

nunc parvulos nobis dedit igniculos, quos celeriter malis moribus opinionibusque depravati sic restinguimus, ut nusquam naturae lumen appareat. sunt enim ingeniis nostris semina innata virtutum,
quae si adolescere liceret, ipsa nos ad beatam vitam natura perduceret. nunc autem, simul atque editi in lucem et suscepti sumus, in omni continuo pravitate et in summa opinionum perversitate versamur, ut paene cum lacte nutricis errorem suxisse videamur. cum vero parentibus redditi, dein magistris traditi sumus, tum ita variis imbuimur erroribus, ut vanitati veritas et opinioni confirmatae natura ipsa cedat.

Nature, as it Is, hath given us but a few Sparks of Understanding, which by our vicious Manners and Opinions we so effectually quench, that scarce the least Glimpse of the Light of Nature appears : For there are in our Minds innate Principles of Virtue, which, if they were suffered to grow, would themselves lead us to a happy Life. But now, as soon as ever we come into the World, we are engaged in all manner of Depravity and Perverseness of Opinions, so that we seem, together with our Nurse’s Milk, to have sucked in Errors: And afterwords when we are brought to our Parents we are delivered over to Tutors from whom we imbibe so many mistaken Notions, that Truth is forced to give way to Vanity, and Nature herself to yield to Opinion.[4]

Cicero admonishes us to take care lest the nothingness of vanity consume our lives. Vanity here, as Cicero uses it, is a word that marks off a meaninglessness and a nothingness opposed to truth. Vanity here is a falsehood opposed to truth and nature. Vanity in this sense is something close to a sustained error, a falseness opposed to reality. And this sense of vanity as error or falsehood draws its sense from its keen opposition to Truth. Without that Truth, there can be no vanity in this sense. Cicero uses vanity here in a contrapuntal and vivifying sense.

“That Truth is forced to give way to Vanity” could serve as the motto for the first brief scenes of the beginning of Lear. Lear’s only purposes seem to be the assured fulfillment of his fixed opinion, the reception of perfunctory flattery, and the removal of all care and responsibility, all with no purpose except self-congratulation.

 ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.(1.1.42-45)

Who is this Lear who would “shake all cares and business” from his age, and “unburthen’d crawl toward death”? And what is unnatural in Cicero’s sense about him? Lear the King would give up his kingdom, so we could say that he is violating a natural order in which the King must always remain King. Many commentators on Lear have here made much of “natural order” and of how Lear violates the fixed principles of the order of nature, of a great chain of being that naively must be maintained lest the cosmos lose order.

There may be a more direct way of addressing what is unnatural in vain Lear, a more simple observation that notes the prevalence of the lie over truth in the King and the Court. One can say that truth has given way to vanity, and nature to opinion in the court of Lear.

Regardless of the King’s position in any great chain of being, his person at the beginning of the play is a false and foolish one, a vain one. Equating nature with truth, as Cicero does, a violation of nature has long occurred for Lear and Lear dwells in a realm of untruth and vanity. A ‘natural order’ reading of Lear might have no problem with the lies of pomp and flattery if only Lear would keep his place as King. However, such a reading would miss the simple fact that the lie here is the unnatural, and that any consequences that follow upon this lie are equally unnatural. The basic order that is violated by Lear’s court is the order of truth and reason, of basic sense.

Contrast with truth and with life gives the senses of vain and vanity a point, a meaning. Horace brings the contrasting or contrapuntal sense of vanus to vivid form. “non vanae redeat sanguis imagini,” says Horace in an ode to a dead friend, “never will the blood of life return to his vain (empty) phantom.”[5] The phantom, the image (imago) is vain because it has no life, nor will it ever again. It is a vain empty nothing in relationship to living, pulsing blood. In Horace’s use of vanus, vanus has been distilled out as an empty nothing in contrast to aliveness. This purest, simplest sense of vanus as nothing appears in contrast to the blood of life.

Living, pulsing blood is real. Vanity is a nothing in contrast to life and the living. The contrapuntal senses of vanity come to clearest form in the phrases and sentences of wisdom works and in poetry. Wisdom works such as Ecclesiastes meditate on meaninglessness and emptiness in the context of an affirmation of life and of wisdom. The searching soul who gathers wisdom is a passionate soul who wants to know. In the aesthetic context of a gathering of words of wisdom, the most difficult truths or perspectives can serve as goads to more life.

vanitas vanitatum dixit Ecclesiastes vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas [Eccl. 1:2]

Vanity of vanities, said Ecclesiastes, vanity of vanities all is vanity.

Ecclesiastes pushes the use of vanity to an extreme. Everything appears as vanity when seen under the sign of mortality. What is the point and the purpose of life?

Ecclesiastes is a persistent meditation on a very difficult fact: we are mortal and our lives are transient. The arrow of time is inexorable. Life is fleeting. How do we represent that to ourselves, and can we bear and sustain the observation of that truth?

What responses do we have to mortality? Are there responses other than vanity? Ecclesiastes offers a simple appreciation of basic life as a counterpoint to vanity. Awareness of transiency may serve as a goad to bring us to our senses, to bring us to our own sense of being alive. The plain experience of life is close to the bone, an antidote to vanity.

dulce lumen et delectabile est oculis videre solem [Eccl. 11:7]

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

Simple, basic appreciation of life is free of vanity. But what of the excess of our love and our needs and purposes beyond simple sensory experience? No life is so simple that it does not suffer the needs and excesses of love, and of care in the face of mortality. We seek a purpose and we passionately need and demand to love and be loved.

King Lear, the tragedy, is also a story of excessive passion; it is a tragedy of passion, care, and love under the sign of mortality.

“Mortality is the ultimate outrage,” says Harold Bloom, summing up his response to the Tragedy of Lear. Bloom calls Lear a “perfection in the poetics of outrage” and a study in “outrageousness.”[6]

The play, starts with a lie, a negation; and that lie is immediately shattered. Underneath a patina of vanity, Lear is raging with passion. Outrageous passion is no vanity; passion is life, but passion may be such an excess of life that it destroys.

If vanity is a false covering, the passions are senseless and raw in and of themselves. They are obscure to us, and yet vital to us. They cannot be explained away. They demand to be reckoned with.

Dramatic tragedy is a study in conflict, a dramatic confrontation. “All you can place against mortality is love”, but “Love in [Lear] is catastrophic.”[7]

The play offers a tragic choice between empty falsity and outrageousness. As a play, and as a tragedy, it chooses outrage. In a fit of rage, Lear banishes Cordelia. The precipitous and inexorable acts of the dramatic tragedy known as Shakespeare’s King Lear follow upon Lear’s rage.


In Fuseli’s above version of that scene, Lear throws his weight into violent point. His eyes are fixed, locked upon Cordelia. His body is in a full temper that tops in a jabbing finger point. His mouth is set, hurling out words. Lear casts Cordelia out with every fibre of his being.

Whatever smooth surface may have prevailed before this moment, Lear cuts it irrevocably here. There is no turning back from this irruption of rage. Lear leans into his fury and falls like a fire spitting comet through the play. Lear’s rage will cost him his safety, his sanity, and his life.

Surprise and shock mix with a sense of inevitability and even relief. Rage is a surprise to the degree that we underestimate the truths and passions that lie beneath any patina of calm. One moment, all is calm, and in the next, there is an explosion. The explosion is unnerving and a relief also; the calm is false, the banality a confining dovecote; the explosion reveals a new country, an entire landscape underneath confines now obliterated.

We need passion; passion is also dangerous, destabilizing, and destructive. A smooth surface and calm seas have their virtues. The cost of passion may be too high. But any perfectly calm sea is a dead sea.

King Lear, is a dramatic tragedy, and it is, therefore, a provocation around a central paradox of human life. George Steiner says of tragedy the following:

Tragedy would have us know that there is in the very fact of human existence a provocation or paradox; it tells us that the purposes of men sometimes run against the grain of inexplicable and destructive forces that lie “outside” yet very close.[8]

In classical tragedy the destructive forces lie “outside”, in King Lear, the destructive and inexplicable forces lie “inside”; they are his own passions. No forces are so inexplicable and to destructive to Lear as his passions. Lear dramatizes a pattern of tragedy at the heart of human life. Bloom said that Shakespeare invented the human; it could more simply be said that he dramatized a tragedy at the heart of the human in King Lear. Shakespeare tarries with the negative and the nothing in King Lear and Shakespeare dramatizes a paradox or a provocation, a tragedy around ‘nothing’.

“Nothing will come of Nothing,” says Lear to Cordelia before he banishes her. Lear utters a promise of nothing to Cordelia as means of threatening her with disinheritance. Cordelia refuses to speak. She will only say “nothing” when Lear asks her to profess her love for him. Cordelia’s sisters have already spoken, in gaudily spangled hyperbole, of their love for Lear. They will say anything to get what they want, his outward wealth and power. Cordelia is lead to their shiny silver and gold. What Cordelia wants is intangible; she wants love, truth, and faithfulness.

‘Nothing’ is matched against ‘nothing’ from the beginning of the play. What may seem a trifle or a nothing takes on all significance while gold and silver reveal themselves to be nothing. The play starts in media res, at the crowded out limit of speech in a world of success; in a world of flattery, of pomp, of custom, of wealth. What value can plain and honest speech have in such circumstance?

Cordelia says,

“I cannot heave My heart into my mouth” (1.1.91-2)

Sincerity is so divorced from the speech of Lear’s court that to bring it to words seems as violent and disruptive to her as heaving her heart up into her mouth. The heart cannot be heaved into the mouth. The heart is a no-thing that depends upon sincerity. And if spoken sincerity appears a violent rupture of pomp and custom, Cordelia’s silence is even more provocative.

Cordelia has been backed into a corner. She lacks that “glib and oily art/To speak and purpose not.” What can she do, but say “nothing”?

The first of her few words in the play she speaks to herself as advice, bond, or instinct:

Love, and be silent.

And so, she faithfully follows her bond to banishment and tragedy. The action of the play follows from Cordelia’s “nothing,” from Cordelia’s refusal to speak, from the evidence of her plain heart. Lear’s response to such honesty is outrage: a stream of curses, and the banishment of the only daughter he cares for.

“Nothing will come of Nothing,” he warns her. These words, this phrase is pregnant with implication, with irony, and with layers of meaning. It is odd and overloaded in the context of Lear’s court of lies. What “nothing” will come of this and what are the shades of this “nothing”?

“Nothing will come of Nothing” is folk familiar; a phrase with a long history dating back at least to Empedocles, in its first sense, it was a statement of cosmology. Lucretius writes in his De Rerum Natura,’nil posse creari de nihilo’: no thing can come from nothing’

Earlier in the work Lucretius states:

Principium cuius hinc nobis exordia sumet,
nullam rem e nihilo gigni divinitus umquam.

Beginning from our first axiom we assume,
no thing is ever born of nothing[9]

Nihilum the latin word for ‘nothing’ is derived from ne-hilum which means not a whit or less than a trifle. ‘Hilum’ itself hovers at the edge of discernibility, between a small something and a nothing. Festus the Latin grammarian says that “hilum they consider to be that which adheres to a bean,” (the black of a bean,) ” from which comes nihil and nihilum.” Priscian writes, “ancients used hilum for ullum, any (small) thing.”[10]

Within nihilum we can see a redoubling of the negative as a kind of less than nothing. The root of the word is born of the indiscernible or the not noticeable, that which sticks to a bean. It could be nonsensically marked off as indiscernible, as in “skin of your teeth.” Or it can represent something so small or insignificant as to escape measure or notice such as the “black of a bean.” This “black of a bean” can also represent the eye of a bean, which is the sense in which hilum is still used today. The hilum of a bean or a kidney is that small eye through which sustenance and/or waste passes into/from an organ or a seed. The hilum in this sense is, if a trifle, a very significant trifle.

Personally, we encounter the limit of the indiscernible as nothing in the limit of our capacities for observation and capacities for representation. A zen saying goes, “just as difficult as it is for dirt to stick to a fingernail it is difficult to appreciate our transient lives.” The wisdom in this saying lies as much in the encouragement of observation of one’s nails, the viewing and the touching of them, as from analogy. If you study your nails, and if they are healthy, they will have a smoothness and a hardness to which no thing can easily adhere. Dirt will not stick there. One’s nails live and grow and yet have the hardness of an inanimate object. These curious and intimate objects, our nails, are not often contemplated or noticed by us. They are neglected. And if the qualities of something so intimate as our nails is not discerned or noticed by us, what of the transiency of our own lives?

One could live a long life without contemplating the living reality of one’s nails. One could also pass a life without contemplating its transiency. So much can pass without notice and what is most vital to us, our own most basic living sense, can be missed and treated as a trifle, or as less than a trifle.

The appreciation of seeming trifles and the the appreciation of the way or nature of things are close bedfellows. An active and a curious mind recognizes how much it depends upon and it turns back to realize how little it appreciates of the most simple trifles. Philosophers have been contemplating simple and basic facts for ages, and in its most simple form the expression, “no thing is ever born of nothing” is an appreciation of the way of things, of the fact that there are basic laws of nature upon which our lives depend. The study of those laws leads to both philosophy and natural science.

King Lear is a dramatization the psychical and personal significance of ‘nothing’. Discernment of personal or psychical significance also takes great care. What may seem a trifle or be treated as a trifle may be most vital. What may seem to be of great import, may in reality be a trifle to the mind and spirit. The ‘nothing’ of silence, of plainness, of simplicity is a vital something to the mind. And all the somethings of the world may be nothing to the mind and spirit. The ‘nothing’ that Lear experiences during his fit of madness, the ‘nothing’ that comes of his reaction to Cordelia’s ‘nothing’, is an experience of himself naked and ‘unaccommodated’. Lear’s story is one of loss, of the loss his dignity, sanity, self and finally his life. At the end of the play, he loses his life to grief over the loss of his daughter. Loss is compounded on loss. But, for all its playing out of inexorable loss, the effect of the play is one of affirmation. The loss of and the negation of so much throws the sweetness of life into bold relief.

“–O, our lives’ sweetness!
That we the pain of death would hourly die” (4.3.216-17)

In the midst of the darkest part of this dark tragedy, Edgar draws sweetness from a soul’s experience of the repeated pain of loss and death, from life. Ecclesiastes, with its repeated refrain of negations also throws the sweetness of life into bold relief.

Tragedy, in the light of Lear, arrives at an affirmation of life through a merciless negation of nearly everything. The mind and heart are everything. They are no-thing; yet they are most vital and essential. They are all that makes sense ‘sense’ and life ‘life’. Lear even loses his mind and sense, and he is left only with his heart. Then he dies. Is the negation of even mind and sense, is the dramatization of the loss of mind and sense an affirmation of the heart?

The tragic affirmation that a reader or viewer experiences, if they do experience it, is not resolution or redemption. There is no resolution or redemption in the play, and if the play were reduced to formal statements of skepticism or of negation it would approach nihilism.

A tragedy is moving; tragedy ignites our sympathy, our passions, our pathos. Nihilism is an attitude or a worldview, a stance or a conclusion. Tragedy subsumes nihilism. Some of the views, for example, expressed by some of the characters in King Lear may be considered nihilistic views. But those views, however nihilistic, are the views of characters within the play. The play itself is a dramatization of life: characters, actions, and views.

A tragic play affects an audience or a reader. A tragedy may dramatize a confrontation with pessimistic or even nihilistic views. The simplest definitions state that a tragedy is a sad story that moves an audience, that evokes pity and fear. The most banal statements of nihilism (“life is meaningless”, “life is without purpose”, etc.) may form the basis for tragedy, but tragedy comes after nihilism. Tragedy is an affirmation that makes use of negation, that requires negation for its effect. And the effect of tragedy is, paradoxically, a eudaemonia, an acceptance or a sense that “life as it is” is meaningful and good.

The life serving uses of negation appear in contrast to affirmation, and affirmation and negation appear as a necessary and paradoxical pair. Paradox here appears as a challenge and provocation to be tolerated and lived. This level of living paradox cannot be solved. In the one whole of life, wherever we find affirmation there will be negation, and wherever we find negation, there will be affirmation.

“Life as it is” is meaningful and good. “Life as it is” is both an affirmation and a negation. An affirmation of the plain truth of “a fig as a fig” is a negation of any false view that would see a fig as other than a fig. An affirmation of the difficult truths of suffering, pain, and death is a negation of any false view that would avoid those truths. And an affirmation of the tragic split in Lear is a negation of any view or consolation that would wish such a split away, ignore it, avoid it, or deny it. An affirmation of passion or emotion is a negation of any view that would deny it or avoid it. And an affirmation of a difficult or even unthinkable truth is the negation of any lie that would hide or avoid such truth.

Just as Lear explodes with passion, bursts the bounds and smoothness of a court of lies, and just as Lear is set off by the “nothing” of Cordelia’s refusal, so too the passions can boil underneath a smooth and plausibly acceptable life, even a comfortable life. The passions are both necessary and dangerous

Easy nihilism would avoid the difficulty of passion or emotion. Banal nihilism might take refuge in spurious immortality or in fantasies of control or vanity, or it might take refuge in a shrinking back and a declaring of life as pointless and therefore meaningless, as not worthy of care or love.

Opening to the inexplicable, opening to the unsolvable paradox of “life as it is” is opposed to nihilism. Can we bear truth and go on living? Are we truly living without it?

John Keats developed a concept and a term from reading King Lear and contemplating Shakespeare’s ability to dwell in bewilderment, and doubt without prematurely reaching after consolation or explanation. For Keats, reading Shakespeare’s King Lear resulted in experience of “Beauty that overcomes every other consideration.” A sense of beauty that overcomes every other consideration is arrived at through doubt, through perplexity, through opening to bewilderment before the insolvable paradoxes of mortal life. Keats named this capacity “negative capability”. Shakespeare created out of “negative capability,” out of an ability to dwell in bewilderment without prematurely reaching after plausibility or sense. Keats called the person who could do as Shakespeare did a “man of achievement.”

What is ‘negative capability’? Keats said that it is a capacity to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.”[11] It is a capability and so it is positive. It is a capability to remain open. And that openness is a negative or a negation of what? It is a negation of easy explanation, and of premature consolation. It is a negation of vanity and false refuge.

Tragedy is a dramatization of passionate struggle with life as it is, stripped bare of consolation, open to the unknown. Dramatic tragedy is an expression of ‘negative capability’ and the experience of reading or watching a performance of tragedy requires a ‘negative capability’ of the reader or viewer.

On reading Lear, Keats wrote a short poem in which he prayed to be released from “wander[ing] in a barren dream” of nihilism and denial of life as it is. For Keats, release from the “barren dream” is to be found in “burning through” the fierce dispute between the “impassioned clay” that we are and our knowledge of inevitable death. Keats “humbly assay[s]” the bittersweet fruit of King Lear, and Keats is consumed in the fire of catastrophic loss. Here the poet leaves the company of the less impassioned and he experiences new life in catastrophe. “when I am consumed in the fire,
Give me new Phoenix wings to fly at my desire.”[12]

Negative Capability is another name for ‘nothing’. The nothing here is a nothing that cannot be grasped in itself. The nothing here is an absence of consolation, an absence of assumed knowledge, and a privation of comfort. Negative Capability as a capacity for absence is a capacity to remain open, a capacity to undergo doubt and change. Shakespeare as a dramatist is that open space of nothing that becomes so many things so vividly. We can only grasp Shakespeare in his characters and his scenes. To seek Shakespeare apart from his works, his words, and his characters and scenes would be to miss the true Shakespeare. “If you seek for Shakespeare, you will find him only in the characters he created.” Shakespeare “was nothing in himself; but he was all that others were, or that they could become”, said Hazlitt.[13]

King Lear, the character, loses himself and his sense and becoming nothing, he reflects on ‘nothing.’

“thou art the thing itself[;] unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” (3.4.109-10)

Poor, bare, and forked. Without wealth, without covering and without unity is the thing itself. Absence, privation is extreme in the representation and stark observation of the mind and heart without accommodation. If the accommodations, the coverings, the garments are all vanity, what of the naked man himself?   He is a nothing. Or he is a no-thing. And on the heath, in a vast wasteland without identifiable markers, he is a naked little animal in a vast nothing. In a no-place, bewildered and enraged, a no-body and a no-thing, Lear begins to speak an odd mixture of sense and non-sense or “reason in madness.” He is accompanied by the fool, his empty foil. Lear never recovers his full sense, but in bewilderment he rediscovers life, and his love for his daughter. He calls himself a “foolish fond old man.”

Lear reconciles with his daughter briefly near the end of the play. Their reconciliation is so brief and fragile that it may seem a nothing, or it may seem to be annulled by Cordelia’s and Lear’s dramatic and final deaths. Their reconciliation, in fact, heightens the painfulness of our experience of their end. The story comes to its end, and its end is tragic. But the ephemeral nothing of life is everything, however transient. The presence of love and care heighten the sense of transiency, and the transiency, the closure of the story, heightens the presence of love and emotion, of movement and life.

As a “nothing in itself” that is “what things may become”, ‘nothing’ as Negative Capability is a necessary condition for the living process of meaning making and truth seeking at the edge of sense. Negative Capability is also another name for the vital and necessary “nothing” that a healthy mind and heart need for living a life of personal significance. The concrete senses of ‘nothing’ are cul-de-sacs of the mind and spirit; they are the barren dreams or barren non-dreams of life without love and care, of mere survival without meaning and without risk.

In his open confrontation with ‘meaninglessness’ and with ‘nothing’ and ‘nothingness’, Keats saw and gave name to a necessary paradox of meaning making. The experience of and the  encounter with meaninglessness and senselessness are necessary to a living process of meaning making. Everything is vanity, except negative capability and meaning-making, and meaning-making is no-thing.

What leads one person to an affirmation of life through an openness to the unknown? What leads another to experience the dramatic tragedy of King Lear as life enhancing? And what leads still others to seek refuge in shadows and vanity?

“The having of something is naturally prior to the privation of it”, said Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas’s statement makes personal and ordinary sense. Without some experience of having, without some experience of love and care, an experience of loss or privation will not be available to a person. It follows that so many who have never known genuine love and care for their true persons will be incapable of tolerating absence or loss or transiency or mortality. They are even incapable of observing or representing the loss of what they never had. Mere survival, mere vanity, may be a last result for those without love or care.

‘Nothing’ only has meaning, purpose, and representation in counterpoint to a greater something of truth and life. Our understanding of ‘nothing’ in its life serving senses may be a measure of our own living concern for truth and life.


1. I am indebted here to the Stanford entry on Negation for both the references to Plato, Aristotle and to the asymmetry of affirmation and negation in natural language. I hope that this section is straightforward enough to serve as a basis for my focus on the personal significance of ‘nothing’

2. The Stanford entry on Nothingness is an enjoyable survey of some of the high peaks of reflection on nothingness

3. I am deeply indebted to the work of P.C. Sandler here who in his works on Bion points to and describes what I am calling roughly two aspects of ‘nothing’. cf. The Language of Bion, pg. 475. Sandler distinguishes between ‘nothing’ or “the minus” as a counterpoint and nothing as a destructive force that cannot be represented. In a situation of mental privation, the privation may operate without representation and without impedance in a life and or a personality. An intolerance of the experience of absence or loss may lead to further privation in a personality.

4.Cicero Tusculan Disputations, Book 3, On Moderating Grief of Mind, pg. 96, translation, a gentelman of Oxford, 1715

5.Horace, Carmina 1, XXIV English translation, faustroll, 2015

6. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom, pg. 510, 1998

7. Ibid, pg. 510, 1998

8. George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy, pg. 128, 1961

9. Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, lines 149-150 Perseus bilingual version here

10. Found in the 1851 English translation of Lucretius here pg. 109, footnote 3

11. John Keats, The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, p. 277, 1899

12. John Keats, On Sitting Down to Read King Lear Once Again, 1871 full text here

13. Hazlitt quote and the previous quote by TS Eliot are both quoted from Li Ou, Keats and Negative Capability, pg. 237, 2009

Posted in Anthropology, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis | Leave a comment

This Strange Case of Nerves: On Anxiety and Meaning

Tityus devoured by vultures in Acheron. An Image of Anxious Anguish (anxius angit). Titiain. Museo del Prado

Tityus devoured by vultures in Acheron. An Image of Anxious Anguish (anxius angit).
Titiain. Museo del Prado

“Nerves are a mystery. Some people seem to have none. We admire these people for their pluck, but, really, they are just born lucky.” — Louis Menand

“When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools” — King Lear

Our first act upon exiting the watery womb is a great cry. Our mothers, if we are truly born lucky, hold us and comfort us in our first open air stress and distress. And our greatest endowment is a very sensitive set of nerves. Such sensitive nerves are the source of our first ecstatic-painful cry and of our first experiences of comfort and joy at the breast of mother. Without nerves: no life, no joy, no sorrow, no fear, no sense of safety, no worry, no comfort, no life. Those adults who seem to have no nerves are either ones you don’t know well enough to know what vexes and troubles them, or they are dead. Those people who seem to have no nerves are either skilled performers or their persons are not visible to you beyond your idealizations of them. Every King Lear, even at his most supercilious and vain, hides a trembling and naked man. Would that Lear should not have had to suffer so; however, his suffering leads him from mere vanity to wisdom. At the end of his story he recovers the eyes of a sensitive soul, he recovers a set of mortal and fragile nerves, and he begins to receive a signal, message, even meaning from his nerves.

I’m afraid that many of our most learned and aged fools will never get to even a shred of such wisdom. I’m worried that their tremendous suffering may never be given enough respect to allow for some growth in their persons. And I’m not only afraid for them, but for the culture that they lead and indoctrinate into a vain foolishness. Vanity and self satisfaction are cold comfort. And it is a high crime for those blessed with sufficient leisure time and privileged habitus to hold out only palliatives, medicated anesthesia, and facile explanation as the desired end of the universal struggle to live and thrive. Those expedients are not any desirable end, only a dead one.

Palliatives are necessary for those who suffer and cannot wait, for those who have to perform or immediately work, for those so debilitated that they cannot at all function. Palliatives, however, only relieve and are focused on symptoms. Palliatives may be a necessary and compassionate part of care and concern for the mind and body, but they are only a part. Just as valium is listed on the WHO list of essential drugs and opiates are essential for pain care, so is palliative care essential. But palliative care is not for the healthy, nor for those who want the use and sense of their nerves, nor for those who want their fingers to touch upon the naked wire of nervous life. Palliative care, in fact, finds a perfect fit in the care of the dying and in the care of those suffering from extreme traumatic injury, the care of those who need dampened signals or no signals at all.

What of the living and those who want to thrive? What of those who have nerves, and who want to attend to the signals that are transmitted along those nerves? What of those who are curious and desirous of experiencing and understanding those very signals traveling along those very nerves? For many of us curious enough to inquire into and to try to make sense of what it might mean to be a person, our sensitive, pleasurable, and painful nerves are vital. For those who do inquire into living and thriving as persons and in their own personal experience, their symptoms and their sufferings are as vital as their pleasures.

Anxiety has assumed a special privilege as some symptom of the age, but it is ancient. ‘ Anxiety’ is an both an odd and old word. It is a case of troubled nerves, and what we do with or see in troubled nerves defines us. Show me how a person treats nerves, anxiety and the symptoms of anxiety and you will show me the degree to which they can afford to have their nerves transmit signals. If one cannot afford a signal, one cannot afford a message. If one cannot afford a message, then perhaps anesthesia is warranted. But let us not call that life or science. The only rigor in a human science without significant signal or message is rigor mortis. And it is mere envy for a person or culture without meaningful message to look back on history and to declare our forebears obsolete because they still had nerves, because they still saw a signal pass, because they dared to inquire into and interpret a message. There is many an ungainly document on the strange phenomena of anxiety. As Kierkegaard points out, anxiety’s potential messages offer us a choice. We can either struggle with the message and the meaning of our experience or we can narrow ourselves and turn away from the unknown in ourselves and seek to dampen signals that might disturbs us.

A renowned intellectual historian, Louis Menand, has recently written an essay whose subtitle is “What does Anxiety mean?” His answer seems to be that anxiety means nothing, and that it is best treated or hidden away. Louis Menand, is, to my mind in the latter camp of those who would rather keep calm and go to sleep. It may be worthwhile to read his New Yorker piece in full: either he is right and kind to offer reassurance, or he is an example of how not to treat anxiety or emotional life in general. The choice is each individual’s. I choose to attempt to find meaning in my anxiety, and Menand appears misguided to me.

At one point in his meditation, Menand baldly states that Science no longer need inquire into the personal meaning of anxiety. He is wrong, of course. He comes off as yet another of the many metaphysical hall monitors who always seem to be saying what or where Science is without knowing much about it. I detect more than a little anxiety in his attempt to divide and conquer the subject of anxiety by killing off the signal, thereby killing off any chance for life or meaning. He is not alone in his efforts. There is a trend in society and in many of us that seeks only the treatment of symptoms, only palliatives, and only facile explanation.  And he is to my mind a ready example of the wrong way to inquire into the meaning of anxiety. For Menand, anxiety appears only an inconvenience or an unlucky fate. For him there is no ‘wakeful anguish’, as Keats called it, that might offer something, signal or message. There is no signal in it, except one that needs to be dampened, allayed, palliated. He is no Freud for whom a “signal anxiety” was a call to listen, a call to an open-ended inquiry into the difficulties of making sense of psychic life, of personal life. Open-ended is the still lasting legacy of Freud and open-endedness is synonymous with scientific inquiry. And open-ended inquiry into ‘wakeful anguish’ continues despite any counter trends that would have us only go back to sleep, etherize us, or anesthetize us.

So of what of anxiety? How to make headway in understanding it at the level of message and meaning?

I’ll take my lead from one of my forebears, from Wilfred Bion, a philosopher and practicing analyst whose science was resolutely focused on the personality and on personal meaning.

“This word ‘anxiety’ is a praiseworthy attempt to give a name to a feeling. Most of us think that we know what people mean when they say ‘anxiety’, although a child would not.” — Bion, Brazilian Lectures [1]

‘Anxiety’ is overwhelming. Not only the experience of it, but the literature on it and the research and thought on ‘anxiety’ is overwhelming. The subject is so broad that to attempt to talk or write about it is enough to give one ‘anxiety.’ What I can do with this overwhelming subject is take a hint from Wilfred Bion and focus first on the word ‘anxiety’ and the fact that this word is an abstraction of a certain history and heritage. A little excursus into some Latin references can reveal some of the particular qualities of this word as it was developed and used by the Romans, qualities which persist in current usage. Readers may note that I am following a long standing practice in the face of ‘anxiety.’ I will choose to narrow my focus. However, I will narrow my focus not to turn away from a struggle with what is unknown and strange, but to better turn toward the difficult and the unknown, and to struggle with meaning making.

The word ‘anxiety’ derives from the Latin anxietas: of which the Lewis and Short Latin Lexicon says that anxietas is “The quality or state of anxius, anxiety (as a permanent condition, while angor, anguish, is only momentary).” Anxiety, then, is a generalized abstraction from the momentary condition of anguish. Anguish or ‘angor’ connotes being vexed, tormented, or even literally strangled. States of anguish are often described as feelings of being torn or stabbed in the stomach or heart, of being rended or wrenched.

Cicero distinguished anxiety from anguish:

anxiety differs from anguish: for all are not anxious who are sometimes anguished, nor are they who are anxious always in anguish: as there is a difference between being drunk and being a drunk.[2]

Not even a drunk is always in a state of drunkenness, but some drunks at their nadir of self-destructiveness may nearly achieve a state of constant drunkenness. And so it may be with the anxious and states of anguish: they may feel themselves to be constantly anxious and to always have a vague sense of foreboding, to always be in an unspecified state of anguish.

‘Anxiety’ has a long history of use as the name for an unspecified, generalized and persisting state of anguish or vexation. As a generalized abstraction from anguish, its lack of specificity was also a good fit for describing experiences of vexation around expectation or anticipation of possibility or the unknown. The unboundedness and vagueness of the word and the concept of ‘anxiety’ seems a fit for and also seems to be the child of vexation concerning the unbounded, the unknown. Anxiety and the unbounded seem to go hand in hand.

Calamitosus est animus futuri anxius

Calamitous is the soul that is anxious about the future. ~ Seneca

In the above quote from Seneca, we see an example of a common use for ‘anxius’ as an experience of anguish in regards to the unboundedness and possibility that constitutes a sense of the ‘future.’ The future is unknown and unbounded, and so a sense of anxiety can cohabit with a sense or thought of the future. The unboundedness of anxiety can also lead to an extremity of feeling that may result from its lack of measure or context. Anxiety can seem to be without measure and so be experienced as extreme, and the word in turn can be and has been used in expressions of an extremity of feeling.

nunc sollicitam timor anxius angit.

Now a profound fear throttles me with anxious anguish.[3]

“Anxius” here in Virgil’s Aeneid seems to serve as a kind of alliterative expansion or exaggeration of feeling, and so captures and expresses an extremity of feeling.

sed Tityos nobis hic est, in amore iacentem
quem volucres lacerant atque exest anxius angor
aut alia quavis scindunt cuppedine curae.

But for us a Tityus is he whom vultures rend
Prostrate in love, whom anxious anguish eats,
Whom troubles of any unappeased desires asunder rip.[4]

Above in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura an anxious anguish in the extreme eats away at the heart and liver of the worried lover, just as the Giant Tityus is repeatedly ravaged and heart-ripped by vultures.

Negative emotional states in general are hard to experience and difficult to talk about and understand, in no small part because painful states are undesirable. Anxiety, as a generalized abstraction from a momentary negative state, is not only undesirable but also difficult to locate and survey. Anxiety has so many varied manifestations that to attempt to contemplate them in full is enough to promote a feeling of dizziness or vertigo both of which are themselves considered as symptoms of anxiety. If the sum of anxiety resists contemplation, its specific manifestations are also hard to distinguish from fear and anguish. Angst, that introduced word for anxiety from Kierkegaard and Freud is, for example, used colloquially in Dutch and German for simple fear.

The words that often are prepended to ‘anxiety’ in contemporary usage are of a family of vagueness: generalized, unfocused, vague, unspecified, free-floating. It is as if anxiety could best be defined in the negative, as not locatable except in the vaguest sense, as without cause, as not specified. ‘Anxiety’, the truth behind the word seems to hide from direct view or understanding. If the concept of anxiety is so vague and difficult to get a handle on, it’s reification and developed abstraction can serve only the most general uses. And here at this most general level, we can see that almost all of the attempts to think about anxiety, pace Menand, share many of the same qualities. Menand appears to try allay the anxiety of his readers and maybe his own anxiety by saying that the struggle with anxiety that, for example, Kierkegaard was thinking about was somehow completely different than the anxiety that Freud was working with. Their writings and their theories are different, but the experience of anxiety shares many of the same qualities across the ages.  Respect for anxiety and an attempt to listen to the signals of anxiety marks the work of both thinkers. They both struggled with the meaning of anxiety, and they both privileged anxiety as a naked and unadorned signal of new life and possible new growth in the soul.

I think here we have to be very careful to distinguish between facts and words about facts. Bion, for example, said that anxiety used in only a generic way may not be helpful if it is imposed from outside as a diagnosis. When imposed as a catchall upon an individual’s experience,  a word such as ‘anxiety’ can serve as a premature foreclosure before personal inquiry into meaning has even begun. What Bion did with himself and with others was work with the fact of anxiety in all its ungainliness and strangeness.  Freud and Kierkegaard also wrestled with the psychic reality of anxiety. Not only is the work of Freud or Kierkegaard not obsolete, as Menand suggests, but Freud and Kierkegaard are still relevant to us. Their work is still relevant because they worked with anxiety and because they struggled with the personal meaning of anxiety. In fact, the poetic writing of Kierkegaard shows a self introspective individual getting close to some of the nuances of their own experience of anxiety. And for many readers, Kierkegaard’s writings are an aid to personally approaching the fact and the truth of their own experience of anxiety. In a humanist timeline, Kierkegaard comes after and not before the doctors of anesthesia. A personal struggle with the meaning of anxiety lies in the present or the future for those who want to live and thrive.

If we are to understand anxiety as a personal experience, which I think is the most important point, then I take Bion very seriously. The “word anxiety is a praiseworthy attempt to give a name to a feeling” that fails to the degree that it is only generalized and not also personally investigated and struggled with. Here is another place where I choose to narrow my focus, not to close myself off but to open to what I do not know and struggle with the meaning of it.

The more of us who have not only heard of, but felt anxiety, the greater the possibility that someone will be able to say more about it than, ‘You are anxious’. —Bion, Brazilian Lectures

I follow Bion above in taking the opposite tack from those who would prefer to only alleviate the symptoms of anxiety in themselves or others. Bion chose to begin to feel and experience anxiety himself so that he might be better able to communicate with others and himself. He, in his person over time, developed a familiarity with and a knowledge of fine differences and nuances in his own and other’s experience of anxiety. And he developed a specific and studied ignorance in the face of understanding what another person might mean by anxiety. He even developed a practiced ignorance in regards to his own particular feeling or sensing in a given moment. His goal and his purpose were both to develop a repertoire of understandings of anxiety and to help another person understand the particularity of their own experience and feeling.

We may start with as vague a sense of our experience of anxiety as the general use of the word. “Then, bit by bit, shapes stand out from” what was previously opaque as we explore and begin to give name to our specific feelings and experiences. We cannot make any progress in understanding anxiety as a personal experience without careful, patient work with ourselves and others. The general uses of ‘anxiety’ as a word are of no avail except perhaps as hints or guides to exploration. “Mental pain takes great care,” says Bion

In fact, analysts after Bion have been less interested in imposing a story on a person about what has caused anxiety than they have become interested in helping that person make sense of  their own anxiety. And the first order of business for each and every person who wants to investigate their own experience is respect for anxiety in the broadest terms. We should, then, not admire people who appear to have no nerves but rather pity them and wonder.

The highest level of human flourishing includes the ability to feel and at the same time contain enough fear and anxiety to enliven us. If we grant the signal of anxiety sufficient respect, it may become a tool and a guide as much as a debility or a deficit. The struggle for meaning is difficult and meaning may elude us, but anesthesia is not life. However difficult our nerves may be, they are ours, and they are life. Given sufficient respect, anxiety can become signal to us that we are venturing into dangerous and/or meaningful psychic territory.

We may then begin to use anxiety as a guide and navigate encounters with ourselves and with others by listening to the strange and sometimes subtle signals of anxiety: free-floating, vague, unfocused. For an artist, an analyst, or a sensitive reader, the as yet undetermined is as much an opportunity for growth and discovery as it may be frightful.

Is it any wonder that many poets, thinkers, and analysts have privileged anxiety not as a symptom of the age that needs palliative care or anesthetic deadening, but as an open-ended call to inquiry? It is in fact a privileged and perfect example of what Bion and others call the “psychical” or “psychic life.”

“Consciousness is an organ for the perception of psychical quality,” said Freud. And it may be that or may become that for us if we allow it to be, if we hold sufficient “care for truth and life”(Bion). So much depends upon us.

Anxiety “has no shape, no smell, no taste” (Bion); it has no form. I take the fact of anxiety not as a call to sleep, nor a call to a dampening of signal, nor a call to premature death, but a call to inquiry, a call to more nervous, psychic life.

1.Wilfred R. Bion, Brazilian Lectures, p. 7.

2. differt anxietas ab angore: neque enim omnes anxii, qui anguntur aliquando, nec, qui anxii, semper anguntur, ut inter ebrietatem et ebriositatem interest, aliudque est amatorem esse, aliud amantem.— Ciceronis Tusculan Disputat 4.24. translation by faustroll, 2014

Vergil, Aeneid 9, 89. translation, faustroll 2014

Lucr. 3.993 translation, William Ellery Leonard, Ed.

Posted in Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Goodbye to the Apparatus

Deterministic frames are the bane of much of social science. Marshall Sahlins has done a worthy and readable job of lampooning and trying to understand the lure of such social science. I do want to try to make time for Sahlins and Hart because they manage to formulate what I call durable and even truthful thoughts on the social. In short, they preserve the classical, basic tensions. I need those tensions to be able to think and breathe.

Exaggerated “plaints without tears” by such figures as Foucault and Agamben, to name two of the more clever writers, have been terrorizing students since the 90’s in many a would be social science. I just read Agamben’s Apparatus recently and I was struck by the determinism that he assumes without scrutiny.

“Monolithic determinism” is the phrase that one critic used to describe Foucault’s metaphysics of power in the early 90’s, so the pushback against the middle Foucault of Discipline and Punish is already very old hat. So, exactly what is Agamben up to in 2005 when writing Apparatus?

I’m not sure. In some sense, he is a kind of literary critic, a philologist, and an elucidator of some very interesting twists and turns in a very complicated story or history. However, to my cursory reading, he mystifies and assumes a kind of “monolithic determinism” at work in social relations that should give any thinking reader pause.

He collapses the tension between the individual and society down to a narrative in which society is a monolith that is as he says “imposed on the individual.” When he, for example, discusses Hegel’s notion of “positivity,” Agamben seems to come unequivocally down on the side of imposition and what he calls, after Foucault, “subjectification.” By the word, subjectification, he presumes to describe how subjects are “created” by society.

He does not seem to maintain a sufficient tension between the imposition of power and control by institutions and the assent to and investment in the “reigning symbols of authority” by individuals.

As he progresses in the essay he seems to reach to the level of a farce. Or am I missing the irony? At one moment, he points to the little telefonino (cell phone) as a sinister apparatus that divides ourselves from ourselves. He makes noises about the “apparatus”, about the social infrastructure that Keith Hart is talking about. The apparatus is supposedly what is dividing us from ourselves.

Agamben is a brilliant writer and a deft philologist, so terrorized readers are presumably kept in enough awe to not notice the mystifications. Does anyone wonder why Agamben hardly lets himself speak plainly?

Truth is, I’m terribly divided and I was so long before the telefonino and I must accommodate myself to a fact: I’m divided. I’m also enabled by society. Society is the first amputation and also what enables. There is the tension again. When Agamben preserves that tension, I can follow him. But I cannot follow him blindly.

I’ll leave off this short foray into Agamben with one very silly sentence of his. Perhaps he is, at one level, yet one more intellectual who is so far removed from daily life that he can see no life or agency in the common man? Agamben actually writes,

He who lets himself be captured by the “cellular telephone” apparatus whatever the intensity of the desire that has driven him-cannot acquire a new subjectivity, but only a number through which he can, eventually, be controlled.

Posted in Anthropology, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Conversations with Peers: Birth in Dialogue

So much of my communication takes place in dialogue. I find it quite difficult to even think outside of dialogue. In fact, dialogue seems to me to be the very soul of thought.

Much of my professional life is spent in dialogue and collaboration with peers, and much of my intellectual life is as well. Dialogue and collaboration are the necessary conditions for me to both want to and to be able to communicate. I also want to find a way to share my thoughts with others outside of my peer groups. And here I am at something of a difficulty. I don’t expect that others will have the time, the inclination, or even the familiarity with the subjects or the language that I am concerned with. More difficulties arise from the fact that I value and use a certain amount of compression in my communications. Compressed statements are difficult and somewhat dangerous; they are also necessary. Compressed statements, the art of making them and the art of reading or listening to them, requires much of both reader and writer. Care. Respect. A concern for truth and life.

I am in dialogue with people whose persons and work I respect very much. One person in particular who I am in the midst of a conversation with. His name is Keith Hart and he is an economic anthropologist who is actively present on the interwebs.  I have been conversing with him on nettime. Keith, is doing some very important work, work that is producing some durable and extensible thought on political economy. I think it might be timely for me to post my latest response to one of his always interesting comments. In my response I select a very interesting and compressed sentence from Keith that I think is a very durable formulation that preserves the poles of a necessary tension in economics, in society. Both poles are necessary and there is a necessary tension between them; the tension, however, is very difficult to work with. There is a temptation, in confronting any “siege of contraries”, to collapse the poles, to choose one are another at the cost of diminishing the opposing pole. If you are impatient or you lack the time, you may profitably skip ahead to Keith’s sentence below. Keith’s sentence is durable precisely because it manages to compress a full enough accounting of necessary tension into one simple sentence that can be remembered, held in the hand, turned over in the mind.

Herewith, the meat of my response to Keith’s response :

I need durable, succinct, and extensible ways to think about the social. I need to preserve the tensions between the classical poles. I especially like the way that you have condensed Mauss below to one very rich paragraph.  And I love this sentence: “To be human we must be concerned with our individual self-preservation and we must learn to belong to each other in society.”  That seems to me durable, succinct, and rich. To belong to each other in society.

I also very much like this: “There is no point therefore in socialists demonizing markets. We have to bring out the humanity in them that is obscured, marginalized and repressed by bourgeois institutions.”

I agree wholeheartedly with that statement. It is very difficult to get a clear view of just what the hell is going on. One way of starting to talk about it might be:

A very real social infrastructure is obscured by a dominant religion that sees entrepeneurialism and free enterprise in rent seeking and bureaucratic stagnation. Perhaps during the naive phase of capitalism, such secular prayer was merely sentimental and not so obviously hypocritical and false. Schumpy and others put a fork in naive capitalism in the early 20th. Without a respect for the history of markets, my previous statements would not make sense. On the one, official hand, we have an increasingly farcical secular prayer that celebrates a reality that is no longer there.

On another hand, we have resistance to the prevailing symbols of authority and to the dominant secular religion. The reality underneath and behind the secular religion is also obscured by analysis that takes the idealizations of the sales effort for the real thing or the thing itself. I’m thinking of David Harvey here as one of the best who still falls for the idealizations of secular prayer. However, due to the scarcity of my capacity, I do not at this moment have a specific example from his texts. One simple thought experiment would be to just call to mind where most critical commentary on markets gets the basis for its critique from: mostly from the business booster press or from the think tanks of the institutions of secular prayer.

Contempt for the study of the oligopoly as it really is, and laziness or blindness seems to mar so much commentary. We get the idealizations of the sales effort and we get denunciations of those idealizations as if they were true. But rarely do we get an honest or thorough look at what the hell is really going on. I’m no exception to that rule, given the scarcity of my time and my capacity both; I often rely on caricature and secular prayer as if it were truth. However, I am catching myself and calling myself to account as much as I can.

I find your work helpful and useful. A path to genuine understanding starts with respect, and for me the path involves quite a bit of struggle to find the time, the space, and the capacity to understand. I’m also grateful for these interchanges on this little forum that a couple of people named nettime a few years ago.

I’m not on facebook because I do not have the time and because I’m already overwhelmed as it is. I’d be sorely lacking in humility and in generosity of spirit if I imagined what that experience is like for any user. I navigate nettime for example in my own way; I must and do grant the respect to other people that they navigate the tensions of communication in their own rich ways. Schumpy comments somewhere in his overwhelming econ analysis on the need that thinkers have to reduce their interlocutors to caricature. I only ask, “How rich is the caricature, how much does it at least grant respect to the worthy aspects of an opposing view?”

I respect the machinery of secular prayer. I don’t have sufficient time to read all the propaganda and caricature. I’m rather looking for the durable and the truthful. I try to see across the impressive caesuras that might otherwise blind me. The frames are there: nettime, facebook, wild internet, twitter. But what of the durable (the aphorisms, the thought experiments, parables, essays, poesy) formulations that might allow access to truth? They are there as well, and they are so much more important and more enduring. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

Posted in Anthropology, Economics, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Hominem Quaero

Quaero Homines. A man in search of a man. A man in daylight holding up a lamp in parody, in pantomime. Diogenes of Sinope searched and did not find.  He wandered about in full daylight with his lamp; when asked what he was doing, he answered, “I am looking for a man”.  His not finding a man has often been seen as a critique of society.  Rousseau famously said that Diogenes could not find a man because man in his simple and natural state no longer existed in the already sophisticated Athens of his day.

We can read the effort to find a man, and the absence of a man found, as a critique of society. We could hold that such an absence is true: there are no adults, no men in the room. But what if the absence of a man is the result of where and how we are looking? If we were to search for a man in much of contemporary social science, we might find him not in the object of science but instead in the basis for science. A competent practitioner is always assumed in any science. But social science must grant competency or consciousness to the object of science if it is to find a man.

Thomas Nagel recently wrote a book review titled The Taste for Being Moral.  In the review he gently chides an evolutionary psychologist for not fully accounting for the conditions of his own science: “We cannot ignore innate human instincts and cultural conditioning, but anyone who wants to think seriously about morality must be prepared to evaluate such motives from an independent point of view that is achieved by transcending them.” An independent point of view is a necessary condition of the practice of science; it is to my mind a necessary condition of coherence and meaning as well. Nagel further holds that we must grant the status of an “independent view” to the object of our study as well. We must find a man.

Conscience, consciousness is the “independent point of view”: consciousness determines; conscience values. A man transcends the objects of his study in order to make determinations, in order to value. Value is determined by quality, by qualitative judgement, by an interpreter.  Many people say that consciousness is a hard problem for the human sciences. From the perspective of a practitioner or observer, it is the fundamental problem or the very basis from which all other problems or questions are to be contemplated.

It may be easier to just waive away the problem, and I can understand the temptation. It is much easier to treat human beings as caricatures, or as sets of modules, as robots, or as the products of forces. But to do so is to miss the very human being that one would study. And the scientist or the philosopher who treats human beings as robots fails to account for the conditions of their own judgement, of their own science

Social practice—what people do, how and why they act—is more sophisticated than our social and moral science. The practice of social scientists, how they go about deciding what to study, is often much more sophisticated than their published science is.  One will more readily and more easily find a man or woman in the social scientist than in the science. To further make my point, I will even say that quite a few researchers may deliberately make their science dumb and they may deliberately reinforce existing social prejudices as the easy path to get their work funded and their grants attained. It is up to the reader or the consumer, the interpreter, of the science to discount the science. Philosophers such as Nagel are gently discounting their peers in the social sciences. How severely we must discount them will depend on our own needs.

Posted in Philosophy, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Crisis Interminable

A crisis is usually thought of as acute and punctuated. In the usual sense, a crisis is an event and an event is discrete. But what of an extended crisis, one without enough acuteness to merit the more common uses of the word? What of crisis deferred or not allowed, and thereby attenuated?

Some observers of the financial crisis of 2008 see current events as part of an extended crisis that has been attenuated by policymakers. Much of policy response to financial crisis can be viewed and is viewed by many as not enough or never enough, especially as regards stimulus, both monetary and fiscal. But there is another broad side of policy response that involves not only stimulus but also direct support or stabilization of an ailing banking system through for example bailout, direct support, and the forestalling of the pricing in of loss (i.e. suspension of mark to market pricing ). The freezing of market pricing in a kind of “amber” is a good example of an attenuation of financial crisis through the forestalling of market pricing mechanisms.

Ashwin P. of Macroresilience.com has written extensively about stabilization versus resilience and of how in complex systems (i.e. global finance), stabilization can and does paradoxically lead to decreased resilience in a complex system. Ashwin mentions the example of how forest fire suppression has led to catastrophic fire danger and less fire resilient forests. Stabilization of a financial system by policymakers during the “great moderation” has paradoxically led to decreased resilience. Hyman Minsky is often credited with what is known as the financial instability hypothesis which states that conditions of stability lead to instability or as Ashwin writes, to lack of resilience. In other words, stabilizing and backstopping the financial system has led to conditions of instability that have come home to roost in the form of an extended or rolling crisis. Ashwin has done an excellent job of outlining the costs incurred in terms of endemic fragility and I recommend his blog for an exploration of that aspect of the problem of financial policy. In this post, I want to begin to ask about the costs of attenuation itself, about the costs incurred when a deemed to be too fragile system is not allowed to experience failure or loss.

Because the large bank holding companies and the systemic financial system was perceived as too fragile to allow for active pricing, mark to market accounting was, for example, suspended in 2009, and since that time many of the weaker large banks have been taking not writedowns but writeups on their portfolios and they have been reducing their loan loss provisions, all this with the implicit blessing of policymakers. This has forestalled punctuated crisis and attenuated the pricing in of deflation and decay in their mortgage portfolios, and it has also helped the banking system avoid facing a solvency crisis.

What are the costs of such policies? The system is perceived to be too fragile to handle writedowns and proper pricing of impaired and deflating assets, so assets are held at “model to maturity” prices. In the words of John Hussman quoted in the creditwritedowns.com article linked above, he says that “the U.S. financial sector [has become] essentially opacity masquerading as solvency”. Whatever the merits of favoring opacity, what are the costs of it?

I have a parallel in mind to this policy that is drawn from the work of psychoanalytic work of Wilfred Bion.

It used once to be said that a man had a nightmare because he had indigestion and that is why he woke up in a panic. My version is: The sleeping patient is panicked; because he cannot have a nightmare he cannot wake up or go to sleep; he has had mental indigestion ever since.


If I translate this analysis of an individual into a social and economic analysis, I might say that the inability of the “system” to allow for the nightmare of failure can promote an attenuation of crisis in which an economy neither experiences a punctuated or terminal crisis nor a subsequent recovery. We might then profitably speak of an economy that has a type of “mental indigestion”. If a large portion of an economy cannot price in or take a loss, then the effort to attenuate that experience of loss may forestall recovery as much as it forestalls catastrophe.

Bion replaces an old conception of the nightmare as a negative experience that is the accidental and transient effect of a physical cause with a notion of the nightmare as negative psychical experience that is both the product of and the opportunity to experience the negative or the difficult. In Bion’s view, an individual may be unable to “thoughtfully” process “food-for thought” or emotional experience and a nightmare is both an opportunity for and a limit of capacity for “learning from experience.” The inability to have a nightmare, to experience or work through the negative, is itself a condition of “mental indigestion.” Elsewhere, Bion describes such an individual as unable to contact “reality” and as “truth starved.”

I’ve focused in this post on the example of the US financial system and not that of the EZ because the US has more capacity to forestall and attenuate crisis and because the EZ may be forced into punctuated and more catastrophic crisis. My intent here is to begin to think through and to suggest what the costs to and the conditions are of a society and an economy that can somewhat effectively forestall and attenuate financial crisis. To suggest that it may be salutary for an individual or a society to actually have a nightmare and to “take the loss” or experience loss is not necessarily, I want to add, to sadistically suggest that people ought to suffer in unmitigated fashion.  A condition in which a person or a society cannot learn from experience, a condition in which an individual or an economy is “truth starved” and unable to contact “reality” is, I rejoin, a species of suffering. The experience of loss is a type of suffering that can be acknowledged and mitigated by care, but how does a society or an individual even begin to learn from let alone heal a type of sickness or suffering that cannot even be acknowledged?

The visible and evident costs to an economy or society that resorts, out of inability to mentally digest truth, to opacity and to the engineering of the signs and signals of premature stability or even recovery are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg of the full extent of the costs. Those evident costs would be: prolonged uncertainty due to lack of visibility into long term viability of firms; a pronounced “valuation” problem; volatility in actively priced markets; inability of markets to “clear”; etc. The deeper costs might be?

1.Wilfred R. Bion, Learning From Experience, p. 8.

Posted in Finance, Philosophy | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Strain of Being Evil

demon mask

On my wall hangs a Japanese carving

The mask of an evil demon, smeared with opulent gold

In sympathy I see —

Bulging veins on the forehead, expressing

the strain it is to be evil.

-Bertolt Brecht

Sympathy strains to find anything of character at all in the vilified Banksters, let alone evil. Pace the moral outrage, one strains to find some worthy scapegoat amongst the Dramatis Personae of the Great Financial Crisis. They are all pygmies. The robber barons of yore have shrunk in to little warts, wens, and gnomes. Where on their faces, where in their physiognomies are the equivalents of bulging veins, of spiritual and moral stress and strain?

not quite the vampire squidBlankfein pantomimes the gestures of moral strain, but he gives evidence only to moral weakness and lack of character. He is a stand-in for a figure that in an earlier era might have been ruthless but has now become wholly routinized. Blankfein as the paradigmatic pygmy is evidence even of a kind of progress, of the moderation and the cultural inflation that attends a great growth in the money supply and the advancement of globalization and industrial consolidation. Else why could such a gnome as this mock the ages by standing in as a representative of the power of financial capital?

I’m not the first to point out how our era of diffuse fraud and diffuse cynicism is not an era of an overall decay in morality or even literacy but a decay in something else.  One might call it the Decay of Evil. Each crisis seems to be the occasion for further routinization, growth and consolidation of Too Big and Too Bland to Fail. The TBTF Banksters have positioned themselves as indispensable parts of the financial infrastructure. Whence comes the scandalous subsidy and backstop that is their haven during times of crisis.

Too much ruthlessness and an excess of risk taking without also serving as an indispensable part of “our” financial system and a firm runs the risk of not getting a backstop or a bailout when the tide turns.

In our own great crisis, the last of the raptors amongst the pygmies, Dick Fuld, a kind of shadow of the beasts of prey of times long past when Bankers took real risks with real money, went down. The scandal here was that the implicit backstop and saftey net for the Banker as too big to fail was pulled away at the last moment, and Fuld was actually, gasp, sacrified.

Fuld at least had something of the physiognomy of the raptor, of the beast of prey, a kind of last remnant of aggressive character. And his firm was aggressive in its pursuit of risk, balance sheet adventuring, and even dare I say it, innovative in its pursuit of profits at the heights of leverage and Ponzi finance.  In the new normal of even greater consolidation and the merging of commercial and investment banking, Fuld is a gorilla left behind on an evolutionary tree that ends only in the pygmy.

I don’t want to tax reader patience by delivering another routinized harangue on routinization and consolidation in the tails I win heads you lose, world of big banking with a sovereign safety net. Suffice to say that character itself has become superfluous.

Observers have had to become wicked to render the irony of an advance in industry and state that is marked by the rise of the pygmy leader, the sovereign as dolt, the CEO as figurehead that knows little, and has no real need of knowing. It is in this gimlet eyed tone that Hegel should be read when he says that “no reference to particularity of character” is necessary in the leader of an advanced state or in this case, large bank in an advanced money economy. Hegel continues:

In a completed organization we have to do with nothing butthe extreme of formal decision, and that for this office is needed only a man who says “Yes,” and so puts the dot upon the “i.” The pinnacle of state must be such that the private character of its occupant shall be of no significance. What beyond this final judgment belongs to the monarch devolves upon particularity, with which we have no concern. There may indeed arise circumstances, in which this particularity alone has prominence, but in that case the state is not yet fully, or else badly constructed. In a well-ordered monarchy only the objective side of law comes to hand, and to this the monarch subjoins merely the subjective “I will.”[1]

What is known in the literature as “moral hazard” creates an ecology that results in moral lassitude rather than evil. These our banksters are no robber barons, no blood suckers, but rather dot the i dolts, and at their best, their very best they are performers who pantomime what a leader should look like in order to dot the i or appear to. Think of Jamie Dimon here.

Evil in the good old sense of character or daimon is not to be found in the hothouse of our mature Big Banking industry, especially not an industry gone soft through safety net and subsidy. Even if I thought outrage and vilification were called for, I’d have a hell of a time finding a target for it amongst the pygmies. Perhaps that is why those prone to outrage seem so confused and why they seem to always miss their targets. Perhaps they are looking for evil in all the wrong places.

As the pygmies shrink more and more, the sheer scale of the numbers at play and the scale of the system itself grows more and more vast and sublime. The figures and the scale of enterprise are worthy of awe and terror or at least the respect that the Banksters have forfeited. A gap between the scale of industry and the bathetic figure of the Bankster appears, a gap in which the Bankster is smaller and more ridiculous at every turn.

The observer outside of the bloated and coddled Big Banks appears in the “high spirit of a kindness that looks like malice.”  A thinker or an innovator in this climate has a “right to a ‘bad character’ and a duty to suspicion.”[2].

Something of an aggressive character is necessary in any observer who would see behind the Kabuki theater, who would envision what an entrepreneur or innovator might do or think in this environment. And here intemperance or outrage are barriers to thought. Anyone who needs to shout or to write in all caps is not aggressive enough. In this environment the qualities that once made for a successful Banker, such as reason, are anathema to the official voices of the Big Banks. Reason, aggressive realism without indignance or outrage, is evil in this light.



1.GW Hegel, Philosophy of Right, p. 167.

2. A shameless steal from Walter Kaufmann and that intrepid soul whose wickedness was a form of kindness. Jenseits von Gut und Bose, aph. 34.

Posted in Finance | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment