What is the value of zero? Is it nothing? Or might it be better to ask instead, what kind of cultural work does zero perform? How is absence woven into the metaphysics of presence, as Derrida might put it? To what extent do we depend upon the little bit of emptiness encompassed within the narrow circle that is zero? How does it uphold us? Undo us? Re-affirm us?
These questions bring to mind Paul Valery’s witticism: “God made everything out of nothing, but the nothing still shows through.”
They also call up some of the earliest, most primal considerations of nothing (or is it “something”?) from The Rigveda.
There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred? Where?
On the other hand: “The Void is a quantum sea of zero point waves, with all possible wavelengths,” as Frank Close tells us in his delightful book, Nothing.
On the other other hand, Andrew Joron announces: “zero point is also a crossing point, a crossing out and a crossing over of the Sign.” Poesis is cognate with the ground of the unsayable, a plenum of zeroes spilling over into speech: “an articulation, not a cancellation, of silence.” And: “This crossing point is a site of utter suspension, of an utterance suspended at the crux of beyond-being: the Cry at zero.”
Such thoughts belong to a vatic order of language. They lay a charge for a logos that somehow lives outside of history, even as it seeks to intervene, to alter and revise and clarify its logic. If there is a logic to history. If there is, it must in some way be supported by nothing and through the sign for nothing we can begin to imagine the greater valences of random connectivity which 0 both invites and permits.
The extravagant, multi-pitched final sequence in Driven to Abstraction, Rosmarie Waldrop’s newest book, takes up these questions in a storied and extended ode to the powers of kenosis and the ultimate value of nothingness. Waldrop is decidedly not of the tribe of the mystic, as is Joron, but of the skeptic, the ironist, the worker of the warp of words who subtends the genius of slippage. Yet, this, too, is somehow and in spite of itself, vatic.
Waldrop’s extraordinary constellation – beginning with “Zero or, the Opening Position” – reads like a history of the metaphysical comedy of negation -- its failures and its hopes -- from its cosmic architectures to its daily economics. It is a remarkable poem, a poem, not about nothing, the nothing of the mystics, of either the via negativa of Pseudo-Dionysus or the khora of Derrida, but a recitation of zero and its curious history as a concept. Of its migration into the West from medieval Arabic mathematics and its subsequent role as a placeholder for the underlying, the foundational that is anti-foundational, “zero, the corrosive number,” as she calls it, without which nothing counts.
Nothing. Zero. Absence of things, of signs. Unnatural. Hover in the same space and identical as twins. Point nowhere and like poems mean but what they say. And are but what is not.
Absence, signed by zero, is what enables language at all, for Waldrop. Zero is the empty knot at the center of every calculation. The absent present that permits speech to conjure spirit, the ghost inside every word and number. A form of grace or is it haunting that blows through every economy, the wind of circulation making the invisible tangible even as it drains the real of substance in the name of meaning.
“Zero or, Opening Position,” is really a suite of interlinked meditations, each one taking up some particular historical, cultural, or philosophical aspect of the concept of zero and its passage into the very core of Western epistemology (though it could be argued it was always already there, from Plato’s Parmenides, at least).
There are poems on money -- both bank and paper; on Vermeer and Montaigne and the ayn sof of the Kabbalists. On Meister Eckhart, modern cosmology, the hermetic lore of nothing, and King Lear's nothing, which strives to pierce his own blindness and is finally reckoned in blood.
If all this sound too abstract, Waldrop reminds us that zero is also profoundly intimate, a richly embodied experience.
Impossible to picture nothing. Even in a mind where unicorns roam whose bodies crumble before the light. Always I find myself hiding somewhere near the edge.
It’s not that nothing can come from nothing. Is it vanity, the delirious power of zero? Its exuberant potential? Of vanities? Its manufactures (and without hands) an infinite of numbers we can barely imagine.
And what profit has a man? Or, for that matter, a woman? Who loves the damp detour of the body? How, among, the infinite numbers – exceeding the grains of sand that would fill the universe – will they know each other?
The tenderness that haunts the precinct of zero casts a lonely, auratic light here. Zero is at once the inexorable, yet phantasmal, structure of capital's brutal empire, and the numen of plenitude that shines when one body touches another, the place where eros redeems, if only for a moment, the depredations of history.
In Waldrop’s catalogue, her bestiary of 0, it is everything and nothing, emptied of all potential and replete with the full range of signification and agency.
And yet. At the bottom of any thing I find a word that made it. And I write. Have made a pact with nothingness. Make love to absent bodies. And though I cannot fill the space they do not occupy their shadows stand between me and thin sky.
In the end, this is not the work of an ironist at all, but of a poet devoted to the thrill of language's endless permutations. Driven To Abstraction offers the deepest affirmation of how the poetic is wedded to the body’s tendrilled affiliations, its desires to connect across the void and against the heartbreaking limit of mortal distances and their continual erasures. It is the most sustained and powerful poetry of Waldrop’s entire career.