Archive for November, 2015

A Philosophy Of Emptiness

November 6, 2015

This is a short review/commentary of A Philosophy Of Emptiness by Gay Watson (2014). Early on Watson points out that she presents only a marginally academic work. This would be in keeping with the subject matter given that in the analytic tradition it would be difficult, if not impossible, to account for emptiness. Gay also describes this as lack, nothing, openness, the void, etc. Watson does a great job at attempting to suture western and eastern forays into this gap between priorities. In the end one is convinced that there is more than just the lily pads upon which the frog jumps. There is also the inky stillness in between. Although not an academic exegesis, Watson does favor a certain bent or partiality which sets the tone for the entirety. Inattention to this personal preference may account for one of the “gaps” of her study. Nowhere is mention made of one of the great TV comedies of the late 20th century. It is almost legendary that Jerry Seinfeld originally pitched his idea for a show as a comedy about nothing. Watson traces western culture’s interest in emptiness through to the end of the middle ages/start of the renaissance. She claims that accounts of lack, emptiness, nothing, etc. ceased and then reappeared with the Romantic of the 19th century. Had she not been so focused on a preference for the “great” thinkers’ accounts of emptiness, lack, etc. she may have been charmed to discover that emptiness, nothing, etc. is likewise found with the popular, like Seinfeld. According to Ranciere’s version of art history and the representative regime, dominant during this period when the “greats” did not focus on nothing, what was portrayed/communicated within art needed to be appropriate to the subject matter represented (a king was magnificent and detailed, a pauper just a quick sketch). As has been pointed out by many art historians/theoreticians, during the Romantic 19th century (when the “greats” once again took an interest in the void) landscape painting came into its own as representation, subject matter. Previously it had appeared only as background to some specific representation of a person, event, etc. If one follows Ranciere’s thinking, what was not the subject of a representative work would have been considered as nothing. So the background of pre-Romantic works would have been a “nothing”, much like Seinfeld’s hit show. Indeed, one finds this inky darkness in the background of artists such as Rembrandt or Caravaggio. So it is that many current historians/theoreticians are studying what was not the focus or priority of art (or great thinking) during the period that Watson claims emptiness vacated western culture. Cervantes’ Don Quixote could, in theory, be likened to a story about nothing! Another aspect that Watson did not consider (at all) was the many anecdotal accounts of the exchange between novitiates and the newly enlightened. These are found in both the Chinese Chan tradition and Japanese Zen. The novices are in awe and wonder of the achievement by the just enlightened monk. They ask the monk what it is like. “No different” is the reply. The author of A Philosophy Of Emptiness would do well to heed this. The tone of her account is very much liberal and progressive. One is left with the sense that learning to appreciate, include, allow for, etc. emptiness, openness, nothing is liberating; that somehow it will make a difference. This quest for liberation and a commitment to what the “greats” had to say about it does make all this out to be somewhat akin to Don Quixote, a comedy about nothing.

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