On Emptiness: Thinking, Feeling, Acting, and the Lack Thereof

by    /  August 30, 2019  / Comments Off on On Emptiness: Thinking, Feeling, Acting, and the Lack Thereof

photo by Simone Marinho


In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt gives a philosophical account of the trial of a high-ranking Nazi official named Adolf Eichmann. The German bureacrat was famously captured in Argentina and tried in Jerusalem for his crimes against humanity. During his trial, Eichmann appalled the world by presenting himself as a good citizen who wanted only to advance his career and claimed only to have followed his orders. In her book, Arendt states that Eichmann did not show any reflection for what he had done as an employee. It was as if his ability to think was interrupted. When questioned, he answered with clichés, yet he was not a perverse individual. He did not use some kind of intelligence to do evil consciously. In analyzing the figure of Eichmann, Arendt began to form questions about the emptiness of thought. “The longer one listened to him,” Arendt writes, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think; that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else.” The characteristic of this form of emptiness is the absence of reflection, criticism, questioning, and even discernment.

We can say that, in our time, this emptiness has become more and more common and people have increasingly given up the capacity to think. We can go further, too: emptiness of thought is only the first of three great voids that characterize our time. Emptiness of thought gives way to emptiness of feeling, which ultimately leads to emptiness of action.

As with Eichmann, it begins with a dearth of thought. It seems absurd that we can live without thought, and that is exactly why the use of ready-made ideas becomes more functional every day. Today, social networks survive and thrive through the flow of ready-made ideas. All over the world, we hear ideas as if they could not be questioned: the earth is flat or communism will dominate the world. These ideas are repeated as clichés by people who do not bother to check their meaning. In countries like Brazil, there are clichés that have even greater weight — where, for example, the saying a good bandit is a dead bandit comes with deadly consequence. This kind of idea is naturalized in moments of growing authoritarianism. People become everyday transmitters of inquest. In emptiness of thought, these ideas are like merchandise bought by consumers who don’t think to ask what meaning their purchase will have.

In the field of propaganda, professionals specialize in presenting rarefied ideas, not only as superficial things, but as something that is easily available, something in which complexity no longer matters. The ideas themselves are consumed. There is a true consumerism of ideas and of the language through which they circulate. Now, the status of things in a world focused on hyper-consumption is that of being disposable. Consider here the idea of “personal merit,” which generates a culture of so-called “meritocracy.” Here’s an idea in which historical and social conditions are hidden, as well as prejudices of race, gender, and class. Yet, “meritocracy” is another ready-made idea that codifies a person’s “victories” and “defeats.” And this, of course, leaves us with ever-more disposable ideas of “victory” and “defeats.”

From this, we can speak of a second form of emptiness that characterizes our world as one increasingly in need of reflection. This is a void of feeling. We live in a world that is anesthetized, in which people become more and more insensitive. Society seems increasingly excited, anguished, and doomed to despair. We can speak of an emptiness of feeling precisely in the context in which people seek, in a disgraceful way, some kind of emotion. We pay dearly for the lack of feelings that we can define, in a generic sense, as a naturalized coldness. But there is a compensation mechanism. From joy to sadness, we want religion, sex, drugs, sports, film, and even food to provoke more than feelings. Ecstasy is desired. Emotion has also become a commodity, and what does not radically emote does not seem to be worth the effort of living.

In this context, consumer goods arrive with the promise of ensuring ecstasy. It is hoped that human experiences will always be intense, cinematic, transcendental, impressive, and spectacular, even if it is just a new outfit or a place for dinner. It is the empire of emotion. It is a construct of excitement against boredom, of speed against the natural time of things, of festivity against tranquility, of drunkenness against sobriety. All this is counterbalanced by the programming of thinking and feeling. The issue at stake is that of emotional emptiness in a scenario of human coldness. But if people are getting colder and colder, it also means they are necessarily more and more robotic with programmed thoughts and feelings.

Which brings us to our third void. There is an emptiness of action that results from this cascade of emptiness. The sense of ethics and politics by which meaningful human actions once flourished has now been lost. In lieu of action, we see prejudiced postures in the field of common sense where ethics should thrive. We see tyrannical and fascist postures in politics. The emptiness of action is configured as an extirpation of a moral sense. Our emptiness costs us the labor of our morality, which would ordinarily lead us to act in view of the common good and respect for the fundamental rights of human beings. The emptiness of action, in turn, gives way to consumerism in which production has a servile and purely utilitarian meaning.

But while human action is the lifeblood of invention, it is this hyper-consumptive world that, ironically, becomes more empty every day. We seem to be in a vicious circle, and the question that challenges us today is: how do we get out of it?

Marcia Tiburi is a Brazilian writer and activist,  popular for her pro-democracy and pro-feminist work. She is well known for her prescient voice of warning against the rise of far-right authoritarianism and fascism. Since completing her three-month residency with the City of Asylum, she has gone on to continue her exile, living without a permanent address. To learn about Tiburi’s story of exile, read her interview with Maya Best

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