December 2, 2007

When nothing is something

Filed under: Uncategorized — ubikcan @ 6:36 pm

The other day I was having a conversation about nothing and something that maybe neither of us quite understood. I was remarking how interesting the idea of minimalism is, and speculated, as people must have done before about the ultimate minimalist piece. If minimalism is about reduction (a big if but not really germane to this point) then could you take a piece right down…to how far?

Let’s say it’s music and the number of notes you have:


Then someone says I can do better and writes a piece (maybe even a long piece) with this number of notes:


And so on:

3… 2… 1

notes. Down, finally, to just one note. The piece is there, you can hear it, although it has only one note. But does something happen if you reduce yet more, to 0 notes? Each reduction wasn’t that much different from the one before it, reducing by just one note in each case. But there’s something intuitively different about reducing from 1 to 0 notes, from something to nothing. Can you have a piece with 0 notes?

Yes we all know about John Cage’s famous piece 4’33”. Now let’s put aside that in practice when this piece is performed there are sounds–chairs being scraped, clothes rustling etc and deal with the pure idea of a piece of music with no notes. So the staves would be empty. There would be something you could buy in music shops with his name on it, the title of the piece and a booklet with empty staves. Can nothing be something? Here we’ve arrived at the opposite feeling from the reductions described above, for intuitively we might feel that yes nothing can be something.

What is nothing? By asking the question we are giving being-ness to nothing: what “is” nothing? If there is an answer to the question then nothing must “be” something. (Didn’t Heidegger or somebody argue along these lines?) Odd but there you are.

The contradictions of this feeling were expressed by the mnemonist known as “S” who was studied by the great Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria. S was a synesthete; that is his senses overlapped so that when he heard or saw a word he had an image of it. This allowed him to have a prodigious memory. When he was read a series of words or numbers he could accurately cite them back, no matter how long the list. Even decades later he still retained a perfectly accurate memory of the list.

But this caused problems for certain abstract ideas such as infinity and nothing:

Take the word nothing. I read it and thought it must be very profound. I thought it would be better to call nothing something…for I see this nothing and it is something.

Here S tries to find an image for nothing. If he is remember it there must be an image.

So I turned to my wife and asked her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.” I understood it differently, I saw this nothing and felt she must be wrong…. if nothing can appear to a person, that means it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in…

The Mind of a Mnemonist, by A.R. Luria, p. 131. Italics in original.

Luria comments that these issues trouble only young people who haven’t made the transition from graphic to abstract thinking (perhaps that’s why I love maps as I also have trouble with very abstract sciences like chemistry and genetics, things I can’t see or convincingly imagine):

He [S] was unable to grasp an idea unless he could actually see it, and so he tried to visualize the idea of “nothing,” to find an image with which to depict “infinity.” And he persisted in these agonizing attempts all his life. (p. 133).

How can nothing “be something”? Perhaps this is why it took a while to realize that zero was a number. What for example should this post be categorized under… nothing? No, WordPress insists it be categorized under something


  1. King Lear seems pretty obsessed with “nothing” as well. Did you recetly divide your kingdom among several daughters?

    Ernest Hemingway is also very fond of the idea of “nada” in A Clean, Well-lighted Place.

    Billy Preston plied the idea of nothing into a hit single.

    If nothing can lend itself to one the Bard’s best plays, be used over and over by one of America’s finest short story writers, and be used in a pop song from the 70’s, then nothing is defintely something.

    Comment by Mprovise — December 13, 2007 @ 6:23 pm

  2. Ah yes:

    Lear: “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again!”

    And he was wrong, something did come of nothing (Cordelia’s silence), ie his ruin and the death of Cordelia.

    This was about the only play I studied in high school that I actually liked/could understand. It’s a great play, intense and tragic.

    Comment by ubikcan — December 14, 2007 @ 9:26 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: