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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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/
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