Much ado about nothing: literature and/as nothing

This is a slightly modified version of a presentation at an indisciplinary symposium entitled “Nothing Happening” at the M-Pavilion in Melbourne, Feb. 2nd 2017. Thanks to the other participants Hillary Charlsworth, Trent Brown, David McInnes, Morris Toscano and the organiser Craig Jeffrey for a great event.


In the modern era reading literature has been all about experiencing something while doing nothing: sitting on our own, silent, disengaged from the world around us; when reading we slip off into worlds that are not actually there. Literature is the space in which we can imagine new worlds, different worlds – but of course it is also a space where we can imagine actual worlds as empty, different; a place that lays the ground for destruction of space and place. Literature as an imaginary space is utopian in the actual sense of the world: it is “no-place”, neither here nor there, in actual fact. When these no-places become mapped onto real spaces, a pharmaceutical politics becomes visible: the legal and political outcomes are cure and poison alike, in the eye of the beholder, of the history writer, of the empowered discursive voices.[1] Utopias, in actual fact, have turned into demon’s lands: Spenser’s Faerie Queene is written in plantation Ireland, Trouwunna becomes the notorious penal colony Van Diemen’s Land.[2]

Its pharmaceutical something-and-nothingness has historically given rise to scepticism about literature. Plato accused literature of being nothing, of being incapable of mediating and generating knowledge, of being groundless. For him the writer is an “imitator”, an “image-maker” and his works are “a long way off the truth”, “only an image”, or an “illusion”, “appearances only and not realities”, – or in other words: nothing. Just as Homer’s Odysseus could be “hero” and “no one” (outis), literature was accused of being something and nothing, this ambiguous character was taken to be a sign of its epistemological deficiencies.[3] Modern philosophers and linguists have developed similar arguments in relation to language in general, and literature in particular. As a world of letters – signs – language refers to reality, constructs illusions of reality, but is not real itself. Literature is empty, a void, vacuous: nothing. If that is the case, then why are we moved by nothing? These imaginary worlds of literature aren’t actually, physically there – but literature still affects us. We feel excitement, sorrow, fear; we engage intellectually with these worlds and their people as though they were something. Roland Barthes famously described this nature as the “zero degree of literature” – it’s ability to generate meaning literally “out of nothing”.[4] In the history of literature there is “much ado about nothing” for precisely this reason.

The pharmaceutical no-thingness of literature – it’s power to materialize the immaterial, to make an absence seem present – is rehearsed in a short text by Kafka from his very first published collection, Betrachtung [Meditation]:

Excursion into the Mountains

‘I don’t know,’ I cried without noise, ‘I just don’t know. If nobody comes, then nobody comes. I’ve done nobody any harm, nobody’s done me any harm, but nobody will help me. Nothing but nobodies. But that isn’t how it is. Only, that nobody helps me – a group of nobodies would be fine, on the other hand. I’d love to go on an excursion – why not? – with a pack of nobodies. Into the mountains, of course, where else?

How these nobodies jostle each other, all these outstretched arms linked together, all these feet treading so close! Of course they are all in dress suits. We go so gaily, the wind blows through us and the gaps in between us. You can breathe freely in the mountains! It’s a wonder that we don’t burst into song.’[5]


There are lots of interesting things happening here that are anchored around how we understand the words “nobody” and “nothing”. What starts out as seeming desperation and depression at a perceived lack or vacuum turns into a moment of liberation and relief. The nobodies become some-bodies in the course of the story, the lack becomes an abundance, the vacuum becomes a full, populous space. Waiting, doing nothing, seems to become a positive something. Kafka draws out, fictionalizes the paradox of nothing here: that it is actually something, that there are positive values to “nothing but nobodies”. Incidentally this is a very old literary reference. When Homer’s Odysseus is confronted by the Cyclops, whom he has just blinded, he says his name is outis, meaning “hero” and “no one”.

If we think along these lines, maybe the “cried without noise” is more telling than we initially think: where else do we find “cries without noise” except in the form of writing, literature, waiting to become imagined as noise in the minds of the reader. And that is something. Literature seems to have the power to turn nothing into something, it generates worlds and meaning literally “out of nothing”.

There might be “much ado about literature as nothing” for a reason. Even if the worlds of literary works are nothing, they are creative nothings. Or nothings that have been created, generated, made-up realities (fiction derives from fingere, to make). Literature is a constant reminder of what we do on a daily basis: we make our world into something out of nothing, either through conceptual interpretations and intellectual acts or through physical, material acts. Thematically, literature reminds of this constantly: it preserves the friction between something and nothing before our eyes, there for us to see. Take the following example from the start of Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Das Schloss [The Castle]:

It was late evening when K. arrived. The village lay deep in snow. There was nothing to be seen of the Castle Hill, for mist and darkness surrounded it, and not the faintest glimmer of light showed where the great castle lay. K. stood on the wooden bridge leading from the road to the village for a long time, looking up at what seemed to be a void. Then he went in search of somewhere to stay the night.[6]


The rest of the novel revolves around this “nothing” of a castle, this “seeming void”. K. needs to establish his relationship with the castle, whether he can gain entry to it, whether it means him harm or good. He finds himself constantly in consultations, meetings about possible meetings, discussing strategies that don’t come to pass. It manifests itself as a seemingly pointless bureaucracy, a constant flow of letters, phone-calls, files and conversations. In fact, like K here, the reader begins to wonder whether the castle is actually there at all: whether its bureaucracy has any point, any centre. Thematically and formally, Kafka’s Castle is about nothing. There might be so much ado about the nothingness of literature because it allows nothingness to at least be evoked or somehow approximated in its fictional medium, then.

But that said, literature’s fixation with nothingness is not just navel-gazing about itself and its own status. The Castle shows us that literature uses this status to represent some of the problematic structures in modern bureaucracies and economies: empty communication, empty power centres, talking for the sake of talking – or indeed: taking other people’s money. K. may seem to be getting nowhere, doing nothing, but this is a productive nothing. He is a land-surveyor, and in effect, his various interviews also make him an ethnologist of sorts – he is actually surveying the lay of the land even if he can’t see anything, even if what he’s being told seems to mean nothing to him. All of this activity might not seem to be getting him anywhere, but watching other people doing nothing while finding this entirely productive, does raise serious questions that the reader may wish to refer back to his or her own experiences. Literature can have a function beyond itself.

As abrupt and essayistic a leap as it might seem, K’s circumnavigation of the seeming nothingness of the castle and Kafka’s representation of modernity’s tendency towards empty communication, towards the circulation of empty speech, towards an ungrounded symbolic structure of power, commerce, and laws can help us begin to imagine a role for literature in today’s neoliberal world. The deregulation of the financial markets in the course of neoliberal economics since the 1970s have led to a progressively spectralized financial and economic sphere. The abandonment of the gold standard in the early 1970s helped to produce an economic model based around an absence of real points of economic reference. Where Marx was concerned with the spectralizing tendencies of capitalism’s industrial relations and consumerism, trading of synthetic products in modern finance takes this to a new level. Here products are being traded, which are always already abstract mathematical projections rather than biophysical products. Marx no longer works – we are now (not) making money from nothing. But these are bubbles that can burst, revealing nothings as nothings.

Not only the non-objects of financial trading take on an invisible, ghostly status, but also those who trade become increasingly mobile, intangible, invisible.[7] Colin Crouch has spoken of so-called “phantom firms” as a key mechanisms in the neo-liberal world order, entities characterized by frequent and rapid changes in identity and relocation through mergers, take-overs, name changes, sub-contracting, out-sourcing, and problematic taxation jurisdiction.[8] Social life itself becomes equally spectralized in this regime. The classical opposition between work and capital seems somehow decentred as outsourcing a heightened demand for flexibility of the workforce has led to increasingly precarious social and industrial relations.[9] In the constant process of self-invention and re-invention demanded by such flexible employment models, there are no clear career paths anymore, what is known as the “corrosion of character”. Insofar as the neo-liberal order demands working relations which are constantly flexible and in which short-term contracts dependent on ‘productivity’ are the norm, it furthermore produces an almost theatrical lifestyle in which employees are required to constantly redefine themselves, their skills and ultimately their tasks as a form of role-playing.[10] The organisation of employment as ‘projects’ seems in many ways to be the apotheosis of what Guy Dubord once described as the modern “society of the spectacle”.[11] role-play, show, intrigue, and performativity have given rise to a new quality of intangibility and lack of substance of social life. The real now seems to be nothing.

But as I’ve been trying to suggest with Kafka: it is precisely literature’s own ambivalent, paradoxical status of being something-but-nothing that offers it the opportunity for it to represent this new social reality. This is most notably the case in Elfriede Jelinek’s “Financial Comedy” about a scandalous investment scam surrounding the Meinl Bank in Austria, Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns (2009), which engages with the phantasmagorical intangibility and performative nature of financial transactions through textual montages. Jelinek’s focus is on the various phantom firms surrounding the Meinl Bank with which false property deals were sold to investors in order to misleadingly boost the profits of the Meinl Bank. Her focus is on the autopoeitic trading of abstract financial ‘products’, which she repeatedly focuses on as empty, arbitrary phrases and linguistic orders, piling intertext upon intertext, word-play upon word-play, jargon upon jargon to create an intense circulation of words and signs which mimics the abstract and immaterial nature of derivative financial markets.

The last word of Jelinek’s play is “nichts” (nothing).[12] This suggests an almost alchemistic productivity on the financial markets, generating spectacular profits by immaterial, arbitrary techniques.[13] Jelinek’s alchemy reproduces the spectacular nothings of the neoliberal economic and social sphere in her own text – the referentiality, the “Welthaftigkeit”, or worldliness, of literature vacillates between absence and presence just as neoliberal capital generates something from nothing. The poison becomes possible cure.

[1] I use the term pharmaceutical in the same sense as Bernard Stiegler here, who diagnoses a similar contiguity of and/or in the social and political sphere. See Bernard Stiegler, What makes life worth living. On Pharmacology. London, Oxford: Wiley, 2013.

[2] See Simon Palfrey’s project on this topic:

[3] Platos Republic, Book X.

[4] Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero. Translated by Annette Lavers; Colin Smith. London: Jonathan Cape, 1967, here p 77.

[5] Quoted in the translation (slightly modified) by Willa and Edwin Muir: The Penal Colony: Stories and Short Pieces. New York: Schocken, 1948, p 29.

[6] Quoted in the translation (slightly modified) by Mark Hamann: The Castle. New York: Schocken, 1998, p 9.

[7] See Thomas Lilge, Du sollst. Kapitalismus als Religion und seine Performer. Berlin: Merve, 2012, pp 109-111.

[8] Colin Crouch, Post-democracy. Cambridge: Polity, 2004, pp 37-8.

[9] Richard Sennett, The Corrosion of Character, The Personal Consequences Of Work In the New Capitalism. New York: Norton, 1998.

[10] Ulrich Bröckling, Das unternehmerische Selbst. Soziologie einer Subjektivierungsform. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007, here pp 247-9.

[11] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1983 [1967]; on the links between contemporary theater and Debord see Jörn Etzold, Melancholie des Spektakels: Guy Debord. In: Tragödie, Trauerspiel, Spektakel ed. Bettine Menke and Christoph Menke. Berlin: Theater der Zeit, 2007, pp 230-257.

[12] Elfriede Jelinek, Drei Theaterstücke. Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns, Rechnitz (Der Würgeengel), Über Tiere. Reinbek bei Hamburg: rororo, 2009, p 348.

[13] On Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns see Evelyne Polt-Heinzl, Minus-Nichts, aber mündelsicher oder Besser eine Taube im Mündel als ein MEL-Zertifikat im Portfolio. Über Elfriede Jelineks Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns. In: Jelinek[Jahr]Buch 2010, pp99-114 and Franziska Schößler: Die Arbeiten des Herkules als „Schöpfung aus dem Nichts“: Jelinek’s Stück Die Kontrakte des Kaufmanns und das Popkonzert von Nicolas Stegmann. In: Jelinek[Jahr]Buch (2011), pp 327-340.