Pt. 9

‘Vantablack’ (blackest ever black)
‘Vantablack’ (blackest ever black)

We are so deeply mired in our philosophies as to have evolved nothing better than a sordid version of the void: nothingness. Into it we have projected our uncertainties, all our ills and terrors, for what is nothingness, ultimately, but an abstract complement of hell, the performance of outcasts, the last-ditch effort at lucidity mustered by creatures unequipped for deliverance?  — E. M. Cioran[1]

To be able to act, then, one must view the real as a void. — Nicolas Bourriaud[2]

In the first few lines of his “Theogony,” we meet Hesiod stumbling upon the Muses who dance (erotically, we’re told) and bathe (erotically, too, obvs) in the Permessos, arousing desire while gifting scepter and laurel and breathing within him “inspired voice so [he] might celebrate what will be and what has been, and they bid [him] to hymn the clan of the blessed ones who always are and to sing of them first and last.”[3] Who’s on first? “The Gap,” of course, “Chaos,” out of whom folds Gaia (“broad-chested,” “unshakeable seat”), Tartaros, Eros, etc. As is the case with virtually all cosmic narratives, some thing comes from no thing and the consequence is the immediate sequestration of divine (transcendence) from profane (immanence), even if the divide is porous, as it most certainly was for the Greeks. More absolute, however, is the Neoplatonic caesural abyss “between the world and the radically transcendent God,” a tremendous (and ultimately unnavigable) vertical chasm, a dehiscent laceration too jagged to stitch.  

In his study The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins, An Yountae suggests that a similar divide, this one both horizontal and horizonal, is internalized within the subject, “denot[ing] the internal crack within the self, that is, the irrevocable inner gap splitting the self.”[4] When Hesiod arrives at Mount Helicon with flock in tow, he imagines himself a coherent, fully realized subject, characterized wholly by what he does. A shepherd ultimately unfit to “hymn the clan” (or so he thinks), he’s fundamentally recast by the Muses who instantly deracinate his prior identity, taking “rustic shepherd” — “worthless reproach[es], mere stomach[s]” — and transforming him into aoidos or rhapsode, bridging the gap with the “streams [that] flow sweeter than honey”[5] from his mouth. “Without having faced or embraced the vertiginous depths beneath the precarious ground of its being,” Yountae suggests, the subject initially “views itself as coherent and independent,”[6] but the Muses whip Hesiod into a frenzy, opening the “vertiginous depths” of his inner void by specifically disrupting his vocation: sure, the subject is what it does, but one’s raison d’etre may differ fundamentally from one’s role (which is, I’d argue, often the case). Here the subject is transformed by “a movement of incessant self-creation and unfolding,”[7] an “act of traversal” that “is not a static substance as/or subject, but ‘his own act of passage.’”[8] The internal abyss becomes the lacerator of the heart, as Agamben creatively (mis?)“translates” Heraclitus, so that “having become divided against itself, all identity, all existence, is disrupted.” In his “moment of utter despair and loss of the self,”[9] Hesiod discovers his élan vital in abeyance. 

In addition to the mostly spatial (at least, conceptually), meta-physical gap demarcating sacred from profane, transcendence from immanence, ideas from things, and the mostly temporal gap holding open the dialectical caesurae dividing the subject from herself — superject from affective force — Levinas identifies a third horizontal abyss, the true void defined by the alterity holding Hesiod at bay from Others (here, both Gods and mediating Muses), the absolutely unbridgeable divide for Levinas demarcating finite from infinite, stasis from ek-stasis. This particular abyss should feel familiar to students of reception aesthetics because it also partitions artist from patron, writer from reader, “producer” from “receiver,” and for that matter, poem from writer, from reader, from world. Like Levinas, Brian Massumi claims that once we insist on a subject-object divide, it immediately deepens into an abyss.

An essential divide is presupposed the moment the categories of knower and known are overlaid upon the subject and the object, and no amount of subsequent maneuvering, however ingeniously contortionist, will smooth it over. […] Any purported solution is smoke and mirrors. Cognitivist philosophies may purport to walk a graceful line between the subject and the object, but what they really do is take a run at making a  “self-transcending” magic leap across the chasm. They are “saltatory”: desparate [sic] attempts to magically jump an abyss of their own assuming. Or failing that to make it disappear with a flourish of the metaphysical wand.[10

The “magic leap” makes the Other for me in a Hegelian dialectical torsion, in which self returns to self by negating Other, folding her into me (for me). However, rather than merely accept this bifurcation, as Levinas ultimately does, Daniel Colucciello Barber offers another approach to the problem by resisting the subject/object duality altogether (without sublating one pole into the other), suggesting instead — in his essay on Meister Eckhart, “Commentarial Nothingness” — that we ought to understand the relational from the point of view of process rather than mere bifurcation (thesis/antithesis). For Levinas, subject and object are caught in a dialectical standstill, metonymically captured by the face, but in Barber’s reading of Eckhart, God and human are both no-things: they relate to one another through nothingness. And since they never concretize, “‘to be equal to God is to be equal to nothing […] there is no dialectic without duality, which Eckhart explicitly refuses.”[11] Barber continues,  

The nothing here invoked lacks the qualities that would allow it to be a thing, yet it is more real than any mediating thing — in fact, its reality stems precisely from this inability to be something. If one expresses nothing, then one has already contravened this nothing through the act of expression.[12]

The dialectical tension Levinas stokes is further complicated by trading in homeostasis — which is used here to stake an aufhebung in the subject’s development — for pure process: no duality, no sublation. To imagine a more fluid process of development between subject and Other, Yountae points to Catherine Malabou’s “place of exchange”[13]: rather than pure absence, Malabou’s “place of exchange” is an interstitial non-place, the kind of embodied apophasis that process theologian Roland Faber calls the “‘interconnected emptiness’ of the ‘place’”: “This negation is the khôra, the ‘origin (without origin)’ of becoming — becoming as such.”[14]

The space of negation, the forcefield, is embodied apophatically (that is, negatively) through the physical poem — a non-place place. The text is certainly corporeal, but the real poem, its “forcework,” as Krzysztof Ziarek has it, takes place in the leap to ek-stasis, in which subject and object do bridge Levinas’s insurmountable divide by disarming duality and allowing the groundlessness of the poem to make room for comportment, a khôric abyss that each participant can dip into, crucially, without simplifying or possessing or even accessing the other (or each other’s accessing, for that matter). Yountae’s abyss is “the passage from the impossible to the possible, from finitude (stasis) to infinitude (ek-stasis), reveal[ing] the self’s contingency; it alludes to the fact that the self’s becoming in groundlessness is conditioned by the other.”[15] His conclusion? The self is the movement between rest and disruption, the passage, often traumatic, “into and out of the abyss, from loss to possibility, from finitude to infinity.”[16]

In explicating the work of Argentine poet Alejandra Pizarnik, whom he claims “discloses the void as a site of revelation,” Yountae insists that,

The utterly negative character of the abyss depicted in Pizarnik’s poems is indicative of the existential chasm encountered at the horizon of finite human existence. But such a view fails to capture another important aspect of the abyss: a space replete with potential. Facing the abyss, in this sense, is different from facing nothing or the void. Pizarnik’s conflation of the abyss with a void covers over the abyss’s complex polysemy and ambiguous nature. For the abyss does not signify a mere lack of meaning. It signifies something more material. In this regard, the abyss is not synonymous with finitude. It is rather a paradox. It puts you face to face with finitude, but this finitude at the same time signals possibility by revealing itself to be the passageway to infinitude, an absence (or lack) that can possibly lead to replenishment.[17]  

The poem itself is a mediating thing among concretized things (reader/writer — writer/reader) “bodying apophasis” in that it materializes “the process of bodying as pure excess, the pleroma of potency.”[18] The poem itself opens infinity amidst a sea of finitudes as “the expression of pure negativity, the negation of any finiteness. It cannot, therefore, be embodied at all. It is the negation of embodiment, of bodying, of the body.”[19] For the khôric interval to “embody” apophasis, it facilitates surplus resonance in the void opened by the absolute alterity separating reader from writer. The poem, however beautifully made, is just a bridge, an organ to produce relational ek-stasis: its in-finitude, then, is a product of this divide. Rather than mediate duality through dialectical sublation/synthesis, the poem holds reader and writer in abeyance, opening an interface without collapsing difference in didacticism, generality, universality, hermeneutics, epistemology, etc. The poem cannot mean on a single level. It’s not one fixed thing: even those poems that claim they are.

“The poem,” which is never a determinate singularity, then, plays a very different role for reader and writer, producing unique access to immanent-transcendence for each party (depending on how each comports to — and makes use of — the organ). However, to occupy this space requires a level of self-dispossession — something akin to kenotic flushing: this is certainly the case in Alejandra Pizarnik’s poem “[All night I hear the noise of water sobbing.]” which directly addresses the void as a site of non-dualist revelation: “All night I hear the noise of water sobbing. All night I make night in me, I make the day that begins on my account, that sobs because day falls like water through night.”[20] In order to make night in me (all night), I must welcome a “self-dispossession that entails submission to the unknown”[21] — self-dispossession produced in tandem with others (but earned in solitude by my own labor, parallel to (but held apart from) the dispossesion of others), mediated by the excess of infinity that never completely bridges the shores of engagement because, finally, there are no shores …


1. E. M. Cioran, “Encounter with the Void,”
The Hudson Review 23, no. 1 (Spring 1970): 43.

2. Nicolas Bourriaud, The Exform (New York: Verso, 2016), 35.

3. Hesiod, Theogony, trans. William Blake Tyrrell, 1.

4. An Yountae, The Decolonial Abyss: Mysticism and Cosmopolitics from the Ruins (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017), 8.

5. Hesiod, 3. 

6. Yountae, 14.

7. Yountae, 3.

8. Yountae, 66. 

9. Yountae, 48.

10. Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013), 7.

11. Daniel Colucciello Barber, “Commentarial Nothingness,” Glossator Volume 7:  The Mystical Text (Black Clouds Course Through Me Unending … ), ed. Nicola Masciandaro and Eugene Thacker (2013): 47–49. 

12. Barber, 55.

13. Yountae, 32. 

14. Roland Faber, “Bodies of the Void: Polyphilia and Theoplicity,” in Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality, ed. Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller, (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), 210–211.

15. Yountae, 44.

16. Yountae, 10–11.

17. Yountae, 2. 

18. Faber, 206.

19. Faber, 201.

20. Alejandra Pizarnik, “[All night I hear the noise of water sobbing.],” The Galloping Hour: French Poems, trans. Patricio Ferrari and Forrest Gander (New York: New Directions, 2018).

21. Yountae, 84.