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Über nichts

Praktiken des Ästhetischen

Andreas Mahler

Pages 203 - 225

Art has often been connected to the idea of nothingness. Departing from two related observations made independently by John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges in the 1950s, the article explores this connection by, first, linking it theoretically to the cognitive matrix as a ‘form’ that enables us to act as signifying beings functionally using something (material signs) as ‘something else’ (meaning). It then shows how some aesthetic practices precisely go against this function by reducing the ‘something else’ (the meaning or content) in order to bring (back) into play the something (the material) that invariably produces it, thus creating the paradoxical, yet pleasurable effect of ‘having the cake and eating it, too’. This aesthetic foregrounding of the ‘form’ was programmatically addressed in the mid-nineteenth century by Gustave Flaubert’s project of writing a ‘book on nothing’. But it is neither typically ‘French’ nor exclusively ‘modernist’, as the examples taken from the history of literature in English, from James Joyce to American postmodernism and from Laurence Sterne back to Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, are apt to demonstrate.


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