Some thoughts on negation, voids, and vacuums

by on May.02, 2012


Paul Thek and his double

Nature abhors a vacuum      – Aristotle

I’ve always liked this quote, this suggestion that nature abhors some element, that it finds the vacuum repulsive, disgusting, though maybe we should ask what did the vacuum ever do to receive such disdain, how has this emotional break between nature and vacuum come to pass?

The Rigveda has another conception of the void: “Darkness was hidden by darkness.” Here, the “darkness” does not have the same agency as Aristotle’s “nature,” nothing is being abhorred, but there does seem to be a paradox: wouldn’t one type of darkness have to be at least slightly different from the other darkness in order for one to be hidden by the other? And would the darkness doing the hiding be lighter or darker, thinner or thicker, lighter or heavier than the one being hidden?

In an interview from a few years ago, Jonathan Littell, author of The Kindly Ones, said that for him writing is not a movement from the dark to the light but from the dark to a place of greater darkness.


If nature abhors a vacuum, would that mean that the character in J.K. Huysmans’ Against Nature is actually on the side of the void?

And what if Nature and Vacuum made up, became lovers, produced offspring that was neither nature nor void, but monstrous, stranded? Maybe a figure wouldn’t be created at all, but a kind of wave, a strange brew, a montage. Rimbaud in Barbarian: “O Delights, oh world, oh music! And there, the forms, the sweats, the heads of hair and eyes, floating. And the white tears, boiling…”

Foucault said that to call for “liberation” implies an a priori human nature waiting to be freed. But if human nature does not exist, if humanist plentitude is a passing illusion, then we should call for the invention of new selves, new ways of thinking, new pleasures, and new types of relationships…


The original title of Gravity’s Rainbow: Mindless Pleasures. As if the book offers itself up as mindless pleasure, so different from the humanist notion of the act of reading as an activity that adds depth, that must always, if only on the margins, provide some edifying ingredient, that, much like nature, abhors the vacuum.


Which makes me think in a roundabout way of Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces, his book about punk rock, and especially that hoax/controversy/form of possession/pack of street kids named The Sex Pistols. Punk as negation, punk as a kind of scathing No, punk as a joke and a prank and a spell of almost incoherent rage, like Johnny Rotten’s vocals in the final few seconds of “Holidays in the Sun.”

But as Marcus points out, there is a difference between nihilism and negation, though the two are often seen together, often haunt the same parts of the city, with nihilism leading to the bullet or the razor and negation always just slipping out in time, making a joke, shrugging its shoulders, always a step away, a negation even of nihilism.

Marcus writes that punk music “briefly made it possible to experience all those things [i.e. everything] as if they were not natural facts but ideological constructs: things that had been made and therefore could be altered, or done away with altogether. It made possible to see those things as bad jokes, and for the music to come forth as a better joke.” Johnny Rotten’s laughter at the opening of “Anarchy in the U.K.” is one I would imagine Bataille recognizing almost as his own, the laughter that undoes us, that echoes anonymously from one emptied cavernous space to another…A cave in the desert or a parking garage late at night…

Marcus then traces a subterranean history, maps out (to use Johannes’ phrase) a zone, a café in Zurich, a shadowy underground movement in Paris in the 50s and 60s, a traditional ballad about wanting to be a mole in the ground recorded in 1924 by a North Carolinian lawyer named Bascon Lamar Lunsford.

And I can’t help but want to write my own additions: Paul Thek’s Tomb, Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm O, Kafka’s Hunger Artist…brightly-tinted moths fluttering around the vacuum.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Johannes

    I love Marcus’s work, especially Dead Elvis and Invisible Republic/Weird Old America. The thing I think he gets really right is the way a work of art takes you into that “deformation zone” – where it can move in all kinds of directions (not the least time periods). So that a certain kind of make-up can have its own history, but a history that doesn’t move linearly and which isn’t limited to make-up. Pop culture interacts with high culture interacts with political events etc. Marcus came to Notre Dame a while back and I got a chance to hang out with him. Awesome guy. I told him that before I knew other writers (ie in my twenties) his books – and the weird ass art/literature/music in them – functioned as a kind of “invisible readership” for my own writing. I mean I feel my poetry has more in common with some occult punk group pretending to dig up Elvis’s corpse than with most poetry published/winning awards etc. / Johannes