Anthropology of Nothing in Particular, An
A journey into the social lives of meaninglessness.
There have been claims that meaninglessness has become epidemic in the contemporary world. One perceived consequence of this is that people increasingly turn against both society and the political establishment with little concern for the content (or lack of content) that might follow. Most often, encounters with meaninglessness and nothingness are seen as troubling. "Meaning" is generally seen as being a cornerstone of the human condition, as that which we strive towards. This was famously explored by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning in which he showed how even in the direst of situations individuals will often seek to find a purpose in life. But what, then, is at stake when groups of people negate this position? What exactly goes on inside this apparent turn towards nothing, in the engagement with meaninglessness? And what happens if we take the meaningless seriously as an empirical fact?
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This book attends to those troubling moments that ‘go missing when we look for meaning’. The narrative stages a series of encounters with such imponderable, meaningless ‘nothings’, leading to a deeply philosophical tarrying with mute, meaningless materiality. These varied encounters begin in the author's apartment, where an epistemic encounter with a splatter on the wall of what looks a good deal like blood, but turns out to be splashed soup, becomes a gripping and deeply evocative ethnographic moment. Both from within and from without, nihilism informs an ethnographic approach that, if it doesn't attempt to sublimate nothings into a meaningful something, nevertheless shows us that nothing and meaninglessness is something to be attended to ethnographically, nothing is part of something. Moreover, like the author's other works, an ethnographic perspective and object that would seem to offer only morose and dimly lit reflections instead seems gripping, interested and interesting. What strikes me the most about this book is that it is a completely novel way of framing an ethnography. This book seeks to find a way of saying something about nothing, that is, ‘nihilism, meaninglessness and nothingness’, both as theoretical objects and as troubling and persistent ethnographic objects, part and parcel of everyday life. Ethnographically, the narration is like a kind of hopscotch through a random series of scenes, what speculative fiction writer J. G. Ballard (1967) called a ‘non-linear narrative’. This digressive narrative moves between theory and ethnography, fact and fable, something and nothing. The author presents a problem, that nothing escapes the web of meaning. Ethnography, after all, has often attended to the boring banalities of daily life, what ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel called the ‘seen but unnoticed’, expected, background features of everyday scenes. In a sense, the ethnographic encounters with meaningless nothingness found in this ethnography superficially resemble what Malinowski famously called the ‘imponderabilia of actual life’ (1922: 19), those frequently banal ethnographic trivialities filling ethnographic diaries which might seem to be examples of meaningless nothingness. But for Malinowski, such apparent nothings are always really something, they never fall outside webs of significance, they are the flesh on the bones of the social. The setting is deliberately not named, it is written as if it was about nowhere-in-particular: there is an anonymous city, there are characters whose names are mostly contrived to be obvious pseudonyms and from which no ethnonyms can be deduced (Oz, Whiskey, Hakuna, Dato, Mushu, Queenie, Conchita). The time, however, is contemporary. These nobodies who live nowhere populate and theorise the meaningless imponderabilia of their actual lives with a series of characters with real names; some are fictional characters, some pop cultural celebrities, some are theorists: Athos, Morrissey, Sartre, Kierkegaard, Tarkovsky, Seinfeld. Sometimes these characters speak off screen as disembodied voices of theory, sometimes they are just part and parcel of the meaningless nothingness. Situating an ethnography of nothing in particular as being, ethnographically speaking, nowhere-in-particular turns the local ethnographic problems of boredom and nothingness that haunt the author's other situated ethnographic works into a more general philosophical and ethnographic tour de force. This is a novel deployment of the ethnographer's magic, of turning real particular nobodies into nobody in particular, as Shunsuke Nozawa puts it: ‘Everyday life implicitly represents culture because it is a normativity inhabited by anybody-because-nobody-in-particular’ (Nozawa 2011: 5). But if these nobodies nowhere can be anybodies, anywhere, they are also real particular nobodies, who, as Nozawa points out, become the heroes of a social scientific underdog story where, like the way the banal imponderables of daily life become the real substance underlying the social fabric, these nobodies turn out to be somebody and something meaningful: ‘an implicit soteriology, salvaging nobodies from oblivion and driving them forward and upward in a topology of value’ (Nozawa 2011: 6). I dwell on this intellectual genealogy of nobodies to show what Martin Demant Fredriksen is trying to avoid doing with Oz and his circle: he seeks to let the nobodies remain nobodies. Standing at the centre of this ethnography is the organic intellectual of nothingness, Oz, a concrete nobody who defies description, he is not fat, not thin, not handsome, not ugly, neither old nor young. He is in this sense a nobody who could be anybody. The author admits when asked, at the end, that at the end of his search for nothing: ‘Oz, I found Oz’. Oz and his circle of nihilists are part of an ethnography of a real particular nowhere: one can recognise elements here and there that are unmistakably the city of Tbilisi in the country of Georgia. I want to list them, but I will not. The author wants this to be about nothing and nowhere, and I will not pick at the carapace of nothing and nowhere to find fleshy titbits of something and somewhere. I will say that the city of Tbilisi is a pretty good – no, ideal – choice as a field site for an ethnography of nihilism. I have never met so many earnestly practising nihilists as I have met there; one could say it is infectious. The feeling is particularly infectious right now, as I re-read this ethnography in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic when we are all confined to our scattered apartments and we are all confronted by the banal imponderabilia of everyday life as meaninglessness, of being all in this – watching the paint peel – together. https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/ajec/29/2/ajec290211.xml?ArticleBodyColorStyles=full-text ~ Paul Manning, Trent University, Ontario, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures
”The scope of nothing runs deep in the book as we are introduced to a motley crew of philosophical, political, literary and artistic roots seamlessly mixing tracks from Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, and Morrissey [through a conspicuous absence of his lyrics ] with insights from the group of young Nihilists along with Nietzsche, the Dude, Dostoevsky, Seinfeld, Sartre, Tarkovsky, Beckett (…) In Frederiksen’s ‘anthropology about nothing’ there is a comforting letting go, a succumbing to the fungus, an amassing of things that do not add up. The book both humours and mesmerizes, amongst other things, by way of its immersive fiction as Whiskey writes, dolphins perform, and the hero of Oz rides away into lavender sunsets – with a clean shave, organic grape juice diets, a tan. Or something.” ~ AllegraLab, http://allegralaboratory.net/review-an-anthropology-of-nothing-in-particular/
(…) this is a book that should be read by anyone who is interested in experimental techniques of ethnographic writing, in the wonders and ambivalences of the nothing in particular, and in the ways in which traditional ethnographic descriptions can be substituted by anthropological fiction and imagination. Frederiksen does this with great skill and brilliance, while leaving the reader wondering about the future of anthropological thinking, writing and doing fieldwork. ~ Anthropological Forum, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00664677.2019.1625530?fbclid=IwAR3HB5PpxOlAAdB63ewogKvdVREe_GOOE93_O0owMYMOunQID6McrAvli4Q
"The book is both an experimental ethnography and a theoretical treatise on how we can understand and represent absence of meaning. Its author, Martin Demant Frederiksen, approaches the meaningless seriously as an ethnographic and experiential fact, refusing to explain what its ultimate meaning could be" ~ New Books Network, https://newbooksnetwork.com/martin-demant-frederiksen-an-anthropology-of-nothing-in-particular-zero-books-2018/
For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain. What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba. Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise. It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about. But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word. Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency. Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter. The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach. So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it. As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost. I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not. In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something. You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever… – Joe Darlington ~ The Manchester Review of Books, https://manchestereviewofbooks.wordpress.com/
“What strikes me the most about this book is that it is a completely novel way of framing an ethnography. This book seeks to find a way of saying something about nothing, that is, ‘nihilism, meaninglessness and nothingness’, both as theoretical objects and as troubling and persistent ethnographic objects, part and parcel of everyday life. Ethnographically, the narration is like a kind of hopscotch through a random series of scenes, what speculative fiction writer J. G. Ballard (1967) called a ‘non-linear narrative’. This digressive narrative moves between theory and ethnography, fact and fable, something and nothing. … Situating an ethnography of nothing in particular as being, ethnographically speaking, nowhere-in-particular turns the local ethnographic problems of boredom and nothingness that haunt the author’s other situated ethnographic works into a more general philosophical and ethnographic tour de force. … I re-read this ethnography in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic when we are all confined to our scattered apartments and we are all confronted by the banal imponderabilia of everyday life as meaninglessness, of being all in this – watching the paint peel – together.” ~ Anthropological Journal of European Cultures, https://www.berghahnjournals.com/view/journals/ajec/29/2/ajec290211.xml
Frederiksen's book is a well written and very interesting anthropological experiment. Not only does it address meaninglessness and the challenge it poses to the venerated tradition of looking for meaning and structure behind all kinds of everyday phenomena and personal life stories, Frederiksen also searches for a style of representation (or perhaps rather presentation) that resonates with his object of study. I really appreciate the way he takes his informants literally, not only in the sense of taking them seriously. Boldly and with success, he employs literary means in order to describe how nothing in particular takes place among them. ~ Anne Line Dalsgaard, University of Aarhus, author of Matters of Life and Longing
This is a beautifully written piece of work; it deals with the kind of existential concerns that anthropology normally deals with so badly by approaching them through thickets of deep theory that all too often become the focus of attention rather than the questions of being that such theory is allegedly intended to illuminate. Instead, the author takes the direct route of explaining in clear and simple, yet never simplistic terms, why an endless quest for meaning may carry downsides and blindsides if relentlessly pursued. The text uses examples from fieldwork and literature in a manner designed to cut to the heart of these concerns, again in contrast to so much ‘experimental’ writing in anthropology, where the feeling all too often is that such tropes are clumsy additions stuck on top of pointlessly meaningful papers with sellotape. I think this book would be a suitable candidate to teach on a number of postgraduate courses; in particular those aiming to help students develop clear writing and avoid the pitfalls of needless obscurity. It’s enjoyable, clear to read and most of all clearly written for the right reasons, a deeply felt desire on the part of the author to explore his own experience of nothingness in an honest and open manner, and that honesty communicates from the page and is likely to communicate itself to readers as well. ~ Keir Martin, University of Oslo, co-editor of Journal of Extreme Anthropology
It is a rare pleasure to read about nothing in particular with the constant notion of wanting to read more about nothing! The chapters of this book meander around nothing, leading the reader back and forth between observations on a place in its non-existence and detailed being, references to and analysis of nothingness versus nothing and the importance of a counterpart of nothing in everything. Like with its contents the author transforms language into a form of questions and in between – is it poetry? is it theory? – contesting those blind spots in a caleidoscopic manner. A text one reads so fast just to start over again when through in order to not have gotten lost on any of the details! ~ Katharina Stadler, conceptual artist and independent researcher