“In the symbolic order, the empty spaces are as signifying as the full ones; in reading Freud today, it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of his dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness”
-Jacques Lacan in his “Response to Jean Hyppolite’s Commentary on Freud’s ‘Verneinung.’”
Everyone wants something. They strive for something…some-thing. We as a society are fixated on the things, the little ‘beings’ or objects to which our attention is directed and for which our work is given. When we look at the world we see it through the lens of things, of a bunch of somethings, and we turn all of our ideas, hopes, aspirations and longings into various things that we can pursue, participate in or master. The world is full of things, and as Hannah Arendt is apt to tell us, we have given the world around us the thing nature that it is; the world and its things are “thing-ified” (if I can so gently make that word up) because we have taken the world from what it is and we have conceived of the contents of the world within the limits of what constitutes thingness…what constitutes possession for only a thing can be possessed.
We work for homes, for cars, for piles of things. We work to secure our lives through the things of our investments…we secure our relationships by the things we invest in them and we derive all meaning from the fact that we are able to take our ideas, generate an imaginary world and then divest ourselves of what is real in search of the always illusive thing. This quest keeps us questing, keeps us defining, keeps us pursuing the thing/things.
We have made the world so dependent upon the idea of thingness that we cannot even conceive of anything that is not a thing.
I am here reminded of Dr. Seuss’s story The Cat in the Hat.
In this quaint little tale, all of everything (the state of affairs within the children’s home if you will) are fine. Everything (which is really nothing if you remember…more on this in a few more paragraphs) is fine. UNTIL someone comes into the life of the children and begins to give the room a “thing” nature. The Cat in the Hat releases “things” into the house, which ironically disrupts everything (which was really nothing as the Mother left the children alone). The Cat brings in the thing nature…even brings in real characters known as Thing 1 and Thing 2…and they do things, they play with things, they value the fun they are having with “every-thing” and it is this chaos of thingness that is valued…that even the children valued.
For a short while the “things” happening were a new creation, a new way of being, a new diversion from the nothing they were really experiencing. They valued this new “thing” and they did not listen to the goldfish swimming in his bowl that was full of nothing and going nowhere, yet somehow the fish in the nothing place that goes nowhere was able to see what happens when “things” get out of control and usurp the space of nothing. These things were valued, that is, until after several attempts by the goldfish sternly reminded the children that these “things” need to stop and “everything” needs to be cleaned up and ordered aright once again. In other words, we need to get back to the real that is nothing.
The releasing of everything and its chaos into the nothingness of the empty home wreaked havoc even as it also preoccupied the children for a short time with new “things” to watch, see and do. Into a room of nothing, everything was created…and everything that was created was shown to be nothing more than a diversion from the Real of life that happens apart from “thingness”…the mundane space which conditions who we are…the space that is more determined by nothing than by the false ontology of thingness. The children thought the “things” were fun and properly teleological in orientation, yet by the end of the story they discover it is a teleology that goes nowhere and does nothing more than distract us from what really conditions the spaces inhabited by our lives.
We have not given the world a thing nature for purely entertaining reasons as these children were so apt to do (though we have done this), but this thing nature has occurred because of our misdirected sense that what is and what will be is constituted more by the presence of a/the thing, than by nothing. We have filled our worlds with things to rid ourselves of the nothing…yet the joke is on us. We cannot rid ourselves of nothing even with the thing as Lacan so aptly notes above.
We have done this, not only in regard to the physical things we enjoy, but also into those metaphysical realities to which we give allegiance and service. Of course, in our late capitalist culture, the world has taken on the very nature of the thing. That is why we live. But why has the thing nature also dictated how we think our faith, our God and the meaning of our lives?
Because we have so thoroughly conceived of the nature of reality as the nature of the thing, it seems that God, Jesus, faith, the ecclesiastical community, our salvation, etc., have all become nothing more than a long list of things; a long list of possessions that give us identity. They are things that are, things that matter, things that will be…God is nothing more than the thing to which I pray or the thing I fear. The church is the thing I do on Sunday to ensure I am in proper relationship with the Thing I call God so that this God will bless me with another thing. My faith is the thing that makes me who I am and conditions how I engage the world…and my salvation is the thing I have because so long as I have it this thing is mine…and because I have all these things, I AM SOMETHING. To be without these ultimate metaphysical things, things that are grossly conceived as all other things in our language and habits, is to mean that I am nothing, no one, not a something. These things make me who I am.
I can “see” them.
I can “feel” them.
I can experience them.
I can “touch” them.
I can think them.
These things have become concretized into our thing schematization because we can think the world only in relation to the thing.
But this is where we are wrong.
The thing does not make us who we are or create our worlds. The thing has no ontological purchase of its own; its only purchasing power comes from us who invest the currency of the thing with value. The thing is not an end and it is not a beginning. Thingness is not realness and it is not absoluteness. We think our lives, worlds and faith(s) are all about being properly directed toward the right thing, but what Lacan discloses to us is that it is not the thing that shapes who we are or where we are going; it is the nothing that does all this. We want to think there is something, yet our lives are all really the result of the reality of the nothing…the nothing that is disguised as some-thing via the thing that is really nothing apart from the nothing that makes it a thing.
All that may sound a bit circular, confusing even. I promise I am not writing to confuse. So let me break this down and then argue the point a bit further:
There is not anything other than nothing. Nothing is…there is no such thing as a thing apart from the nothing which gives rise to the world in our vision, though this is a world that rests its things on nothing; it’s not a world that ends nothing with a world of things.
We have so conceived of the world via a thing nature, or a particular type of ontic character, that we have left behind the role that nothing plays in making us everything we are…even as this idea of absence and nothing is still nowhere to be found.
Nothing conditions how we speak, what we value, what we pursue, those “things” we are fearful to pursue. Nothing is what places us where we are and it is only relation to that nothing that meaning can be created or generated. This is one of the main thrusts of nihilistic philosophy. It is not a philosophy that argues for some sort of black hole abysmal reality where there is no meaning; on the contrary, it is only because nothing is that everything can have meaning for a thing only has meaning in relation to nothing. Apart from this frame of reference, a thing is lost in itself without any analogous referent from which it may make sense. Apart from nothing a thing is not even a thing…and therefore, apart from nothing we too are nothing. Thus, nothing is. So while we strive to forget nothing by thinking everything, we lost in the process an important part of ourselves and what makes us who we are.
Lacan goes well beneath Heidegger’s own idea of Geworfenheit here…
Lacan notes, “But the subject has a no less convincing sense if he encounters the symbol that he originally excised from his Bejahung. For this symbol does not enter the imaginary, for all that. It constitutes, as Freud tells us, that which truly does not exist; as such, it ek-sists, for nothing exists except against a supposed background of absence. Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”
He goes on to the quote at the beginning of this essay, “it certainly seems that the first step of the whole of the dialectical movement is constituted by the gap of an emptiness.”
What Lacan is observing in his response to the famous psychoanalyst Jean Hyppolite is that our lives are negotiated more from the gaps of nothing than by the imaginary worlds we have built for ourselves. Nothing is the condition of meaning because the symbolic order rests on this negation of things in order for meaning to be construed. It is only because there is an absence that a presence appears.
The bejahung that Lacan mentions is Freud’s term for our original primordial inception into the symbolic order. It is the original affirmation that we did not affirm. Our place in this order, an order which does not exist but exists apart from itself, is really nothing…it’s a place we cannot place anywhere, it is nowhere, yet its constitution as nowhere means that it is the nothing that is somewhere. The bejahung is our inception into that order (language, symbols, sounds, meaning, body language, ideas,etc.), an original inception that is no longer available to us but surfaces in us at moments of repressed desires, visions, déjà vu, dreams, etc. It is the place into which we are plunged and emerge with the symbolic, with language, yet we cannot recount the making of the symbolic or its highs or lows. We are people of symbols yet the genesis of the symbols have long been lost in ek-sistence of the bejahung that’s nothingness allows for the existence of other symbolic things, which really do not exist. Or as Lacan notes, “Nothing exists except insofar as it does not exist.”
Thus, our worlds and the things we fill them with are really nothing and they reside nowhere but the places we have granted them to reside. The emptiness of our minds, the places where we do not think but where we really are, is more indicative of our condition then are all the things we create and all the imaginary’s we fabricate.
So if our worlds are really conditioned by nothing and the foreclosure of our language into a specific symbolic order, what does this mean for those things that mean most to us…those things that we can place our in our hands, our heart and our minds?
It means that we are not driven from or toward the places we can grasp, but we are perpetually the creation of what has grasped us even as it has nothing to grasp us with. The gap between there and here, where and there, is the gap and nothing that makes us as much who we are as all the fabricated things we have created to hide from the gap that is nothing, yet has made us everything.
These spaces that are nothing are really the spaces that fill our lives…it is the nothing of the lives we wish we could have that surface in our consciousness and produce the world we think we see. Only because the fabrications of our worlds do not really exist, because they are nothing, do they present themselves into the symbolic order as an imaginary thing. The fact that things appear to us in the present and we aim for them in the future, only do so because they are nothing and do not exist anywhere, thus our very “thing” nature of the world is really driven by the world we do not see toward the place we do not know with “things” that aren’t really there…meaning they are the things that are not really us or the real that remains allusive.
If the thing nature of the world we have created is merely that which has taken us away from the place of nothing, and nothing…or that which is no longer available to us, is that which constitutes our moving, thinking and being, than what does that say for our faith and its objects if we continue to call them things? Perhaps, to begin this conversation aright…we should begin not by saying all those things that are things and then seek about defining them in our possession…but perhaps with Lacan, we should take a more apophatic approach.
For if as a people of faith we claim that God is where we come from, where we are and where we are going…perhaps we are not discussing a thing known as God…
Perhaps what we are saying is that God is nothing