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'… the value of nothing'. 2008
Dontasknothing magazine

Everything has a price, all our objects, words, lifestyles and ideas come tagged and bagged and ready for sale in this most materialist of societies.
To be is to shop and you can be anything you want provided it's on the rail.
'Value packs' are stacked high and sold cheap for family consumption in support of Family Values. A litre of water can cost the same as a litre of beer which we all know is 'reassuringly expensive', and a flight to Paris can cost you nothing but tax.
We have constructed that most cynical of societies which, as Oscar Wilde pointed out 'knows the price of everything and the value of nothing'.

In this moral landscape it is hardly surprising perhaps to find God emblazoned on a car bumper and hiding behind an AK47. To every action there is an equal and opposite reaction so, as capitalist materialism goes global inevitably there will be an anti-materialist reaction seeking… something intangible. And perhaps this paradox is there in Wilde's definition of the cynic - that by giving everything a price we not only devalue everything but we revalue the concept of No Thing.

In fact the cynics were a group of Greek philosophers of the 5th century BCE, who rejected wealth and possessions in favour of simple virtues and a life in harmony with nature. The name cynic is derived from kunikos, meaning dog-like and was perhaps a derogatory comment on their tendency to live on the streets. Most prominent amongst them was Diogenes, the son of a banker, who famously lived in a barrel, ate raw meat and railed against the polite society of his time. There is a story that Diogenes, (nick-named simply 'the dog'), became so famous that Alexander the Great no less came to Athens to meet this other great man. As he stood before the barrel Alexander's shadow fell across him and, so the story goes, all Diogenes' would say was 'would you move aside, you're standing in my light'.

We need our bubbles bursting. Our egos are better for a little deflation. And whilst I wouldn't wish negative equity on anyone perhaps it's inevitable that our mortgage lenders have got us over a barrel. Also attributed to Diogenes, according to that great fount of wisdom Wikipedia, is the statement "other dogs bite their enemies, I bite my friends to save them."

Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien…

The concept of nothing is as old as philosophy itself. It is a void, it may be The Void. Its root is in the arab word Safira, which itself comes from the Sanskrit Sunya meaning void. It is either the absence of something or the absence of anything. The word safira incidentally also gives birth to the French word chiffre meaning digit and the English word cipher used in encryption.

In physics the nearest one might get to it is the idea of Dark Matter or anti-matter, the strange all-consuming phenomenon of the black-hole.

In mathematics it equates to the value zero, an Arab device not adopted by the west until the 12th century. In fact the value 0 was treated with much suspicion in the medieval world arriving as it did with the Moors - it was un-Christian, anti-hierarchical and unkind to God. It reeked of witchcraft and secret rites… but of course it became too valuable to ignore.

In Tarot, card no.0 is The Fool.

Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), inventor of calculus and the discoverer of the binary system whose 0s and 1s are the bedrock of all computing, described the number zero as '
...a fine and wonderful refuge of the divine spirit - almost an amphibian between being and non-being'


Which of course brings us to that inspirational textbook of positive thinking Being and Nothingness by the lovely Jean-Paul Sartre. His view was that we live in a state of limitless consciousness, or nothingness, but that our physical world, or being, constrains us to make choices. Our resulting inability to make reality match up to the fantasy causes anxiety from which we flee into adopted roles, into artificial constructs and visions of God.

I know nothing about art, but…

Marcel Duchamp once said 'Dada is Nothing' - and of course, what Marcel Duchamp didn't say about art isn't worth knowing. The Dadaists of the early 20th century were like the cynics in ancient Athens, iconoclastic, shameless and vocal, if not to say barking. But their goal wasn't negation rather rejuvenation in a moribund society almost strangled by its own pretensions. Destruction can be a creative act.

From the mystical visions of Giotto to the brutal realities of Francisco Goya or Thomas Hirschorn, art has always reminded us of our weaknesses and shown us unattainable perfections. It has always tottered between the absurd on one side and the abyss on the other. Even the great cave paintings at Lascaux tread this line - their colour and their scale betray the awe of their creators, you can hear the thunder of hooves in the scratches on the stone, and sure enough, lost in deep fissure in the rock, the only depiction of a human figure: a tiny stickman with a bird's head floating upside down like an ancient spaceman in a sea of nothing.

What is this fascination with the void? Is it a recognition of the sublime majesty of everything in nothing, or a fear of invisibility? Perhaps it is the space by which we define ourselves, in which we recognise our own being. Perhaps the relationship between the self and the void is the same as that between the artist and the blank sheet, or the art object and the white cube. The act of creation, to make something where before there was nothing, is an act of defiance. It stands against entropy, interrupts the flow, and leaves a mark on the surface in recognition of one's own existence. Nothing is the stave on which the note hangs; it is the instant of time in which the event occurs. Nothing is the context without which no thing exists. And nothing is priceless.

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