Nothingness as Ethnographic Theory

Martin Demant Frederiksen

School of Culture and Society

Aarhus University

April 2020

It is difficult not to start a piece about nothingness on a philosophical note. And so, I will.

The question of “why is there something instead of nothing” is one that, according to Heidegger, has not been posed properly since antiquity. The reason for this, he contended, is that the question implies a problematic either/or position. Either there is something, or there is nothing. This is problematic in that it is often the something that we end up considering, leaving little room or effort to think about the nothing. And it is problematic because the either/or conceals the fact that the two (the something and the nothing) only exist in relation to each other (Cutrofello 2014: 80). Sartre came to a similar conclusion in asserting that nothing is, although never as an entity of its own. In all something, there is a little bit (or a whole lot) of nothing, and vice versa. As such, there is reason to talk about nothingness instead of nothing (Sartre 2003). But perhaps we should also, one might continue, talk about somethingness rather than something.

And there is also reason to bring the discussion of this relation beyond the realm of philosophy, and to consider it as a social phenomenon with its own existence. Yet as a social phenomenon it has received surprisingly little attention within anthropology. In the few accounts in which nothing and nothingness do feature, the notions have often been relegated to being an analytical optic making it possible to depict a particular structural position in which people or groups find themselves unable to act in the world. There is great merit to such studies, yet I want to argue here for the potential of seeing nothingness on a broader level. That is, to see nothingness both as a possible empirical object and analytical device, and in the end as an ethnographic theory that allows us to ask a range of novel questions.

A great number of books have been written about the concepts of nothing and nothingsness outside the discipline of anthropology. Some concern the history and genealogy of the concepts (eg. Barrow 2001, Green 2011, Rotman 1987) while others focus on what it means to, or on how to, do nothing (eg. Lutz 2006, Ehn & Löfgren 2010). Alongside these are the numerous philosophical texts and theses which have delved into the two notions (eg. Cutrofello 2014, Dolar 2012, Heidegger 1996, Nietzsche 1968, Sartre 2003), the equally numerous works dedicated to related themes such as voids or negation (eg. Žižek 1993, 2013, Badiou 2007) and the literary works of Franz Kafka, Fjodor Dostojevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Samuel Beckett, and Robert Musil, to mention just a few.

Historically, conceptions of nothing significantly influenced the growth of knowledge in Eastern philosophies, whereas it had an extremely slow start in the West. And when the latter started including nothing as an element of experimental science it was mainly done in mathematics, physics and astronomy, for instance in relation to the question of the vacuum (Barrow 2001: xii). Notions such as nihilism and scepticism would suffer a similar fate in that they were side-tracked by perceptions and ideas relating to ”something” rather than ”nothing”, and to ”meaning” rather than ”meaninglessness” (Cunningham 2002). This changed with the work of French existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The works of both these writers can be seen as a reflection of the aftermath of the two World Wars and a Europe where life had ceased to make sense in the way it once had. Camus presents us with experiences absurdity and hopelessness, such as in the Myth of Sisyphus (1991) in which the main character is condemned to push a heavy ball up a slope only to see it pushed back down by the gods. In Nausea (2000), Sartre puts forth that there is no inherent purpose to human existence, a position he develops further in Being and Nothingness (2003). ”There is nothing more incomprehensible than the principle of inertia”, writes Sartre (ibid.: 12). Yet, inertia, nothingness and non-being need to be considered as aspects of the real (ibid.: 30).

Sartre gives the example of meeting his friend Pierre at a café. The café, he writes, is full of being and there is ”formed a synthetic organization of all the objects in the café, on the ground of which Pierre is given as about to appear” (ibid.: 33). All these different objects, however, melt into the ground; there is a nihilation of all objects that are not Pierre – they disappear to consciousness so that Pierre can appear. Only, Pierre is not there. But that does not mean that the café re-appears from its nihilation: ”This figure which slips constantly between my look and the solid, real objects of the café is precisely a perpetual disappearance; it is Pierre raising himself as nothingness of the ground of the nihilation of the café. So that what is offered to intuition is a flickering of nothingness; it is the nothingness of the ground, the nihilation of which summons and demands the appearance of the figure, and it is the figure-nothingness which slips as a nothing to the surface of the ground (ibid.: 34, emphasis in original). Sartre uses this example to establish that non-being is a perpetual presence in us and outside us, ”nothingness haunts being” (ibid.: 35). Being still has a logical precedence over nothingness – it is ”from being that nothingness derives concretely its efficacy” (ibid.: 40). Again, being and non-being, then, are not to be seen as opposites. Rather, non-being and nothingness reside on the surface of being – nothingness is a component of the real. And as such, nothing and nothingness may be many different things. This was the vantage point in my own research on nothing and nihilism which deliberately was published as “an” and not “the” anthropology of nothing in particular (Frederiksen 2018).

What is interesting to note is that both Sartre and Camus developed their ideas about absurdity and nothingness alongside the optimism of neoliberalism. That is, a period experienced by many as one of meaninglessness and nothingness yet still represented in liberal politics as one of optimism and potentiality. This odd mix of negativity and positivity continues to hold true in many societies where neoliberalism sets the political agenda, evident in the recent body of anthropological literature depicting the consequences or aftermaths of neo-liberal politics. Aside from Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), these include Elizabeth Povinelli’s exploration of late liberalism in Economies of Abandonment (2011), David Scott’s examination of a time-stalled neoliberal present in Omens of Adversity (2014) and Anne Allison’s depiction of the everyday consequences of socio-economic crisis in Precarious Japan (2014).

A distinctive focus on the social role of nothingness, I believe, has something to add to such studies. And it opens up for a series of questions that are as anthropological as they are philosophical; How is nothing and nothingness conceptualized and lived in particular cultural contexts? And how do particular historical or cultural conceptions of nothing affect upon ideas of subjectivity and agency? How may we approach the social life of individuals and groups who either firmly hold that life is without meaning or contains empty signs, or who have themselves come to occupy positions of non-existence? What are the spatial and material tropes of nothingness? How does a “somewhere” become a “nowhere”, and vice versa? What are the figures and grounds of nothingness as they appear (or disappear) in the context of neoliberal political change? How may we accommodate for and theorize experiences of, and engagements, with nothingness anthropologically? How does one grasp the flickering of nothingness? And how does nothingness as empirical facts effect upon anthropological analysis? What happens when nothing happens? How does nothingness relate to notions such as boredom, waiting, meaninglessness, absence and emptiness? And how does it relate to notions such as freedom and creativity?

Posing such question may open up for new considerations about the socio-cultural histories or perceptions of nothingness in various contexts, and what these may reveal (or conceal) about social life. And it may even offer new ways of theorizing something.


Allison, Anne 2014. Precarious Japan. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Badiou, Alain 2007. Being and Event. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Barrow, John 2001. The Book of Nothing. London: Vintage Books.

Berlant, Lauren 2011. Cruel Optimism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Camus, Albert 1991. The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. Vintage.

Cunningham, Conor 2002. Genealogy of Nihilism. Routledge.

Cutrofello, Andrew 2014. All for Nothing – Hamlet’s Negativity.  Cambridge and London: MIT Press.

Dolar, Mladen 2012. ”Nothing has Changed”. In: Daniela Caselli (ed) Beckett and Nothing: Trying to Understand Beckett. Manchester University Press, pp. 48-65.

Ehn, Billy and Ovar Lofgren 2012. The Secret World of Doing Nothing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frederiksen, Martin Demant 2018. An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular. Winchester and Washington: Zero Books.

Green, Ronald 2011. Nothing Matters – A Book about Nothing. iff Books.

Lutz, Tom 2006. Doing Nothing. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nietzsche, Friedrich 1968. The Will to Power. Vintage.

Perec, Georges 2010. An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. New York: Wakefield Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth 2011. Economies of Abandonment – Social Belonging in Late Liberalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Rotman, Brian 1987. Signifying Nothing. Palgrave McMillan.

Sarte, Jean Paul 2000. Nausea. London: Penguin Books.

Sarte, Jean-Paul 2003. Being and Nothingness. London: Penguin Books.

Scott, David 2014. Omens of Adversity. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj 1993. Tarrying with the Negative. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj 2013. Less than Nothing. London: Verso.

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