“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thank You Olafur Eliasson: Nothingness Is Not Nothingness at All

Here's the bit, from the same essay, that Olafur Eliasson is using for his exhibition:

Fear of nothingness is fear of a certain physicality, a physicality whose phenomena I cannot predictably demarcate from its reality in advance. Thus we might hypothesize that this physicality has the quality of given- ness—it is just “there,” yet not in a way I can grasp conceptually. Rather, it forms the necessarily disturbing substrate of my phenomenal experi- ence, disturbing precisely because it is not “just stuff,” just some kind of neutral stage set on which I strut and fret my hour. I experience such a givenness as a distortion of my phenomenal world (Marion 37–40). Something is wrong, out of joint, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye, a slight flickering. There seems to be some correlation between this idea, which is housed in phenomenological theology, and the Buddhist Prajna- paramita Sutra’s notion of emptiness: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.”3 Eliminative materialism and idealisms appear to have little trou- ble with the first formula (“form is emptiness”). It is the second one, “emptiness is form,” that gives them trouble.

This trouble is ironically also common to the experiential etiology of a Buddhist meditator. As Chögyam Trungpa puts it, “form comes back” (Trungpa 189). Reductionism and elimination make one feel clever, but what happens when the meditator drops her fixation on feeling clever? Or consider the frequently repeated slogan of the Soto Zen master Dōgen: “first there are mountains, then there are no mountains, then there are mountains.” Is it not the case that what appropriations of Buddhism within eliminative psychology ward off is precisely the third statement? What on earth could it mean?

Nothingness is not nothing at all, so it is physical, but not in the sense of constant presence. Nothingness is disturbing. It is there, in a mind- independent sense; it is part of what is given. But I cannot see it directly. There is a weird crack in my world. Perhaps there is only one crack—the one between subject and non-subject: this is how Kantians (and others including Heidegger) police the gap, by putting some kind of copyright control on it. Or perhaps there are as many gaps as there are things, and relations between things. This is what object-oriented ontology has begun to think about the phenomenon–thing gap.

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