writings / musings :

The potentiality of nothing

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Ham sandwiches and eternal happiness

In a recent article the discovery of a large ‘hole’on the edge of a distant galaxy was described as having a shape. That shape, which might be considered as being empty, was expressed in terms of having a boundary. Of course nothing can be empty and we sometimes define boundaries by the things they exclude but generally we perceive ‘nothing’ as having no content and in doing that we tend to associate emptiness with the idea of a void, something trivial, which can also imply absence or lack of form. But rarely do we consider the things that don’t exist and that the presence of something, like, let’s say someone’s identity, is what makes them real, tangible, present. The idea that something empty, or, possibly something that doesn’t exist, or even maybe that once existed but now is only a residue or a memory, can carry so much weight, so much mass, captivates me.

In mathematics the symbol Ø refers to an ‘empty set’, which can be described as a unique set; a set which has no elements and it can be found on the computer keyboard as Unicode U+2205. In linguistics it refers to the element which has sound but somehow is not there. What I mean is that it might imply that theoretically where we would expect there to be a ‘thing’, a symbol, something that identifies that sound, but when trying to represent it, it doesn’t really exist as a symbol or a thing.

And on top of things, there’s this guy, Nicolas Bourbaki, who actually isn’t a person at all but rather a group of people. He, she, them lets say, have an office in an institution and ‘they’ do real work, they have even written books and came up with the Ø to represent empty sets, they also theorised around concepts on set theory, topologies, vector spaces and functions of one real variable, to name but a few. They aspired to concepts of rigour and generality within their research, which sounds like an oxymoron to me, but none the less, they contributed hugely to the field of mathematics and gave the world terms like dangerous bend theory, injective, surjective and possibly bijective.

Just to make things a bit more complicated, or harder to explain, I must point out that we shouldn’t think of Ø, in mathematical terms at least, as nothing. If we consider the hole again, which, by the way Edward de Bono has a great analogy regarding holes when talking about perception and lateral thinking, we can imagine Ø sitting inside the hole or as Stuart Hall might describe it as being “part of the [hole] itself; it is constitutive of it. It is one of its conditions of existence, and therefore [its] representation is not outside the [hole], not after the [hole], but within the [hole] itself; it is constitutive of it.” Although Ø is a mathematical concept which today is considered to be widely accepted, Ø continues to be an ontological oddity which is questioned by logicians, debated over by philosophers, creative thinkers, educators and students alike.

And in case you thought things were beginning to make sense let us consider a ham sandwich and this popular syllogism as proposed by David Darling in his book The universal book of mathematics: from Abracadabra to Zeno’s paradoxes which is often use to illustrate the philosophical relationship between Ø and nothing:

“Nothing is better than eternal happiness; a ham sandwich is better than nothing; therefore, a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness”

In case this line of inquiry may seem a bit simplistic we can always refer to the philosopher Jonathan Lowe who points out that while Ø was somewhat of a coup in the word of calculations we should not confuse its ability to enumerate as having the ability to represent some sort of object. He is quoted as saying “all that we are ever informed about the [ Ø ] is that it (1) is a set, (2) has no members, and (3) is unique amongst sets in having no members. However, there are very many things that ‘have no members’, in the set-theoretical sense — namely, all non-sets. It is perfectly clear why these things have no members, for they are not sets. What is unclear is how there can be, uniquely amongst sets, a set which has no members. We cannot conjure such an entity into existence [purely] by mere stipulation.”

OK trust me, there is something here and its all a bit complicated but I think it supports some theories around the Ø. But I must make this clear, this is not an attempt at trying to define nothing, or trying to decide where I position myself, who I am, or whether I even exist. But rather, I see it as an inquiry into our relationship with the phenomena of things virtual where matter and ideas are prevalent and the world of objects and spaces and the ‘Thing’ that inhabits them.

But before I move on, I will miss-quote Descartes and appropriate some original thinking from people far cleverer than me… “I am not, therefore we are”.

Who killed the internet?

Some scholars consider that the internet has died. Not in the sense that it has ceased to exist or disappeared, but rather in the sense that it has become ubiquitous or an inescapable quotidian. A recent e-flux journal published by Sternberg press The Internet Does Not Exist postulates this very theory. I have not read it yet but I intend to, you see, even here that potentiality is being expressed in the possibility of something that hasn’t happened yet, that doesn’t exist. The introductory text to the text which showed up in my inbox caught my attention and especially this short extract “Networks are all edges, as Bruno Latour points out. We thought there were windows but actually it’s made of mirrors. And in the meantime we are being faced with more and more — not just information, but the world itself.”

This idea of the simulacra has existed for centuries, and in Greek mythology it was the beautiful hunter, the cool-kid Narcissus, who in the classic version by Ovid, hung out with Echo in the woods one day and was to be punished by Nemesis by revealing himself to… well, himself, because he had banned affection to the depths of the forest, turned away the kiss, the embrace, not even able to place a hand on his heart. In Jean Baudrillards’ Simulacra and Simulation, the reflection is us. Not in the physical sense but rather in the things we create or the constructs of the lives we live, the social manifestations of our societies and the ‘Debordian’ spectacle. It is represented in the hyperreal of pop-culture, news bites, reality TV, late night shopping channels, tweets, likes, follows. But Baudrillard takes the idea of the mirror further and gives us concepts like these when describing the simulacra: “No more mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept. No more imaginary coextensivity: rather, genetic miniaturization is the dimension of simulation. The real is produced from miniaturized units, from matricies, memory banks and command models […] It is rather a question of substituting signs of the real for the real itself.” From my point of view these concepts can only exist in the world of intervention, in the manufacturing of perception and the constructs of a world shaped by the hands of humans.

You see, I am a ‘digital migrant’. I come from a time where information was transported through the cathode ray tube, electromagnetic radiation, frequencies, Ben-Day dots, rubylth and amberlith, CMYK spectrums, negative spaces, em spaces, ascender, descenders and so on, so it is no surprise that the internet fascinates me. It is a place with no objects, no smell, no taste. You can imagine everything you experience on the internet as being real, as existing or having existed but in some sort of parallel universe. It is a place that might resemble a Derek Parfit science fiction analogy where we have been beamed to Mars and the tele-transported duplicate of us has been glitched through a ‘delay’ or a mistake, splitting us between a reality and an image of us trapped in a screen but in a different place.

The internet plays itself out on these screens and acts like a giant mirror; but it is not our immediate reflection that we see, rather what is bounced back at us is a collective snapshot of ourselves where the content we create, our narratives, our ‘selfies’ are sometimes crystal clear as glass and sometimes the reflecting pool is a muddy puddle, murky, blurred. And not only is the internet a mirror, but our devices also literally become mirrors. A digital plane that has a front and back facing camera which not only gives us the ability to look at ourselves backwards but also to see beyond us through that same mirror. An image within an image looking backwards looking forwards.

But the reflecting pool is not only an interface with which we engage with, it is not only a hole that we peer into, it is also a place that we define and create, its a place that we give mass and volume to. And this volume is forever expanding where its weight is measured by the connections it enables. The reflecting pool is where the digital clones of ourselves are being shaped, where time is compressing so rapidly that our instinctual reaction with the interface is to confirm our own reality. It is here where we manufacture the patterns of validation where the digital world allows us to continue our enamored affair with infinity, where we now fabricate our own digital procreation. It is here that our multiple online dimensions exist, where we time travel, where we multiply exponentially, where every share, every like replicates us in nanoscopic bytes, expanding us out, filling the void of the dark hole. It is here where the battle for survival is being played out.

Let me see if I can explain this a bit better. It is generally accepted that the animal kingdom models its existence on the basis of individuals having beneficial traits which allow for it to produce more offspring, which in-turn allows for the expansion of population numbers which eventually creates mass, balancing the relation between extinction and survival. This innate desire for a continuum, whether that be conscious or not, is what drives the survival of a species. In times of distress the rate of reproduction increases in order to ensure that numbers remain high through periods of catastrophic loss. If we apply this theory to our contemporary fascination with technology, we can see a correlation in terms of the aggregation of content and information, rapid increases in the up-take of new technologies and a bond with an interface which acts as a social catalyst for connecting strangers in common spaces.

The explosion of the service sector, which is quickly replacing the manufacturing industry, can be understood as a symptomatic reaction to an online existence. The desire for humans to record, capture and disseminate our lives can be seen in the rapid growth of the IT, software and mobile applications industry. A quick overview of the top free downloaded apps puts Instagram and Facebook at two and three respectively and interestingly the top two paid apps on the iTunes store are a bible study and reference app, strangely named e-Sword X (excuse my ignorance) and at number two is Day One Journal, which according to the promotional copy, allows you to “Record life as you live it. From once-in-a-lifetime events to every day moments…” Based on these observations we could speculate that the internet, the devices we interact with and the software we write have not only become tools of self-reflection and an extension of our existence but also create the perfect environment for the cloning of ourselves. And it is not just us, as individual, but us a species, the planet, its inhabitants, our systems, our ideals, that we are recording, measuring and analyzing. So, with this is mind I wonder if we are not only recreating ourselves but our whole existence, our humanity, so that we can continued to exist in another form, in another time and possibly in another place. But then, at times I wonder maybe we’re all just really, really stressed, wondering if everything we do isn’t real and all that we are doing is just faking it.

Objects and ideas which ‘ping-pong’ across a boundary

Through a recent Billy Apple(insert here a Circled Latin Character Letter R) retrospective, The artist has to live like everyone else at the Auckland Art Gallery, we gain this sense of the continuum, the quotidian and the world of ideas. Here the relationship between self (whether it be real or constructed) space (as in the carefully manipulated white cube) and the spectacle of the event (as in the audience becomes subject – are we looking at an artist trying to deal with what art is or are we being asked to reflect on ourselves in terms of what we consider art to be?) is played out in a series of visual clues, symbols and icons, constructed languages and parodies which fluctuate between the commercial and art worlds. During his career Billy Apple(insert here a Circled Latin Character Letter R) transforms the prosaic into a visual language of ideas asking us to pay special attention to the potentiality of the ethereal. He describes one period during the early 70’s, where his work shifts from object oriented to conceptually based works, as being “in the area of the negative condition” where the materiality of content remains in the act of doing and of being present in the removal of self. The idea of there being a negative would also suggests that there must be a positive, as one cannot exist without the other, but it might also propose a negation of identity or hint at an interruption to the continuum, a possible distraction. In the act of removal we inevitable create something else and in that act we either reveal an intention or we leave behind a residue of what was once there. This play with the relationship between present and future, function and intent, self and other is manifested in the way that ideas and objects ‘ping-pong’ across the boundary between the labour of the maker and the labour of the object, both expecting the transaction to be as profitable and as tangible as the reflection in the mirror.

But for me, the transaction is not the perfect mirror of the reflecting pool either. Rather I consider the digital looking glass to be a place of chirality, where the interface resembles our skin, creating a boundary between the fabric of our biological selves and the world of external transactions. The word chirality derives from the Greek ‘kheir’ or hand and refers to the universal notion of something that is familiar to us, like our hands. We perceive our hands to be identical ‘objects’ sitting in symmetry on our bodies, extensions of our arms. But if we examine them closer we realize that the two objects can never be identical. We cannot superimpose one upon the other and get the same thing. No matter how we put the two objects together in relation to each other we will always observe that although we think of them as being exactly the same, there can never be the mirror image.

But what makes chirality more interesting in relation to the reflecting pool is that the mirror now becomes slightly askew, a bit concave or convex where things do not quite match up and begin to distort and bloat. What bounces back is a warped version of our data inputs, sort of like Milli Vanilli or the delay in an email exchange where time is stretched and ‘things’ disappear into the digital abyss, hijacked or become temporarily disposed. This pause, lapse or ‘glitch’, so to speak, creates the ideal environment for artifice and opens up the possibility for ‘other’ to occupy that ‘in-betweenness’. It becomes the perfect breeding ground for tricksters and jokers, thieves and alter-egos, power hungry politicians and commercial sharks, cake baking grannies and expert evangelists. The mirror is no longer the perfect reflection of our exterior but rather becomes the place of disruption, falsehood and uncertainty. Here we are never sure of who we are, who others might be and our lives become a sort of symmetrical malfunction, where the slight of hand of the magician belongs to the nimble ninja of letters and symbols working quietly in the dead of night, in the realm of incomprehension and perpetual doubt.

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