Coming From Nothing: A Thought Experiment Novella

Coming From Nothing: A Thought Experiment Novella

by Matthew McKeever


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Coming From Nothing is a tragi-comic love story concerned with notions of identity, such as Judith Butler's idea that sexual identity isn't determined by the body, and John Locke's that personal identity is a question of memory. The first novella in Zero Books new series of Thought Experiment Novellas, these are books that work out philosophical arguments in their plots. Whether focusing on William James' determinism, Descartes' mind/body dualism, or Judith Butler's argument for gender performativity, these short books attempt to flesh out philosophical problems. They are stories wherein philosophical ideas have consequences, at least in the lives of the characters.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781785356193
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 05/25/2018
Pages: 136
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.57(h) x 0.33(d)

About the Author

Matthew McKeever is an academic philosopher from Northern Ireland. He works as a research assistant affiliated with the University of Oslo's ConceptLab, and is editorial assistant for the philosophy journal Inquiry. He received his PhD from St Andrews on philosophy of language. He has published stories and articles on analytic philosophy and popular culture.

Read an Excerpt


— Load of old fucking bollocks.

— That's ... an opinion, I guess. So you're a, what, gender essentialist?

— Well, I don't know, but like.

He picked up the book beside him and started reading: 'The feminist appropriation of sexual difference whether in opposition to the phallogocentrism of Lacan blah blah. Blah. Blah. Blah.' Page 38. Like, what is that?

— What? You want it to be easy?

— Easier anyway.

— Well, dude, life ain't easy.

Said Carrie to Jules. She was wearing a green raincoat, the collar of which was popped up and threatened to engulf her head. Her eyes were cool and blue, but there was a sallowness to her complexion that reflected a bad night's sleep and, maybe, a lack of vitamin D. She spoke quickly with a southern American accent.

— It's just so ... theoretical.

— Well, it's called 'theory' for a reas ... actually wait!

She hit him on the arm.

— I guess for you it is a load of fucking bollocks because you're an essentialist, right? You locate it all in the bollocks or lack thereof.

— Well, firstly, it's 'bollocks' not 'ball-ox', and secondly I'm not an essentialist. I just want someone I can understand.

— Don't we all. ... Well, whatever, it was a good joke right?

— I'll give you that, it was a good joke.

She smiled at him, then rubbed her blue jeans for no clear reason, as if she were wiping her hands off.

Jules was ruddy and short-haired and also wearing an engulfing jacket. His newly grown beard, a source of amusement and/or alarm to friends and/or family was not too impressive, but his face was symmetrical and she thought he was handsome. So she was happy, when she had asked him if she was in the right place for the tutorial (she had been unable to make her regular time this week), with his eager yes, guessing correctly he wanted to chat. And sitting down beside him she noticed gladly that he smelled good, or at least deodorized, which mitigated the fear of the unattractive beard.

They were outside a room on the fifth floor of Trinity College Dublin's arts block, sitting on a deep window ledge in front of wet glass, waiting for the tutorial for their class (Em)bodied selves, about feminist theories of literature.

— So you like this stuff, is it?

This was Jules, in a bland middle-class Dublin accent.

— Yeah man, for sure. It must be right.

— It must?

— Yeah, it must.

— That's a bold statement.

— Well, I mean ... I don't wanna make this conversation entirely testicle-based, but what if someone cut a person's — let's say, your — balls off?

Jules laughed, but not very uncomfortably.

— No, no, I'm making a point. This isn't like some misandrist rant. Point is, that wouldn't make you no longer a man, right?

— No.

— And say you're paralysed completely — that doesn't make you no longer a person, right?

— No.

— So there! Your body doesn't define you, so you're an anti-essentialist.

— Hmm. I guess, like. It's just ... why does it have to be so fancy? Why can't they just say that instead of all these words? Just less ...

— Theoretical?

— Right. And like I mean ... where is everybody?

Gesturing toward the empty hallway, he continued:

— What time is it? My phone's dead.

— Quarter after. Is this definitely the place?

— Been here last ten weeks, so yes. Did you check your email in the last couple of hours?

— Oh, no. Actually, I couldn't work out how to sync it to my phone.

— Can you just check in the browser?

She was doing. There was an awkward pause as it loaded, which Jules broke.

— I can show you how to sync, it's kind of awkward, I think they got the port wrong on the ...

— Oh, cancelled! Uhh ... oh, Deeurrmid, is that right?

— No, that's profoundly unright. 'Diarmuid'.

He said, laughing at her pronunciation, and causing her to laugh in turn.

— Well he's sick.

— Oh. No Butler for us then I guess. What a tragedy.

And then there was a pause. Jules looked down at his crossed legs, shy, uncertain. Carrie, more normal, asked:

— Do you want to get a coffee? We can, uh, have our own seminar, who needs Deeuhhh?

—'Diarmuid'. Sounds like a plan.

Carrie was in Dublin for six months visiting from Louisiana State University. There were no neat comparisons between the programs here and those in her home university, with the result that she took a wide range of courses: a first-year introduction to classical Greek literature, this third-year English course, a second-year metaphysics class and an independent study, also affiliated with the English department. While it was intellectually stimulating, the fact that she went from class to class — and, moreover, frequently joined classes among a cohort who all knew each other already — made it very difficult to make friends. Now,with Christmas approaching, and nearly half her time gone, she's started to get used to the dull ache that accompanies the empty weekends, where she'll generally go to some event alone or stay in her room in the halls, or simply walk around the city, it now more often than not raining and dulled with familiarity, heading over to the north side to the cheap supermarkets and second-hand bookshops, or getting lost around the leafy suburbs near the halls, the green of the leaves, almost overwhelming a few months ago, now gone from the streets.

Jules was also lonely, or at least somewhat alone. He had moved from being an incredibly introverted nerdy teen to being a mildly less so young adult. In the past year or so, he had come to realize that he might be desirable to the opposite sex, and was suffering something like Carrie: although he knew his classmates, when he started college he was so awkward that he never formed close bonds with them, and now that he wanted to it felt too late.

It was in an effort to overcome this that he was here. His degree was computer science, and he was just auditing this class. He claimed that it was because he was interested in feminist theory, truly enough, but the fact that he imagined it would be populated by women was not a small part of his decision. So far, though, his strategy of sitting quietly by himself in the corner had not been of much help in meeting people.

It's thus eagerly that they descended the stairs together, and after an hour or so awkwardness dispersed, and after two hours they were walking up the street for lunch, and after three they both realized something good was happening.

* * *

— And so, uh ...

Earlier that morning, in the lecture they had unwittingly been sharing all semester, a nasally Californian, with big dark-rimmed glasses, a black suit over a white shirt, and a nose piercing glinting occasionally in the light thrown off from her laptop, was giving a lecture.

... this idea of performativity, it really helps ...

Here she modulated into a digression, with a slightly different cadence, a half-smile, a sense that she was talking with, not at.

— When I was a student, my supervisor told me, it was like, it loosened the muscles that had gotten hardened, the sex/gender dichotomy that had become so engrained in the way people thought of these things, that it was very liberating for some people ... and that's how I've always thought of it, as like a massage of our concept of woman, I guess ...

— But so it really helps break down certain divisions, of the way we tend to have this naturwissenschaftlich conception of the body as opposed to — as we saw, what, a couple weeks ago — the Geisteswissenschaften, as opposed to culture, society, religion, art, the realm of the spirit, in Hegelian talk. And so those people who might want to say, yeah yeah gender is socially mediated, struck through with language; language-struck, but there's still the undeniable corporeality ...

And she sort of sung the progression of the vowels, lifting off at the second 'o' and kind of losing the 'i' in the landing.

— The bodiness of the body that's just there, a facticity as Heidegger would say. For Judy ...

Everyone noiselessly groaned at this first name, apart from the ones who smilingly thrilled. The division of the class into groaners and thrillers was exclusive and exhaustive.

— This evinces a certain failure of imagination. When she was writing, she was interested in things like drag, transgender people, camp. She thought that if you looked at the different ways in which femininity was expressed, you would see it needn't be tied to (what we call) female body parts. There's a spectrum, on which you could place the camp gay man at one end, the drag performer further along, and then transgender people who may have been born into male bodies but are women. Or vice versa, obviously.

So two aside points: first, biology bears this out: it would take us too far away to discuss, but you could look at stuff on intersex people (I think I put a link to a YouTube documentary on the handout). Second, it may be worth thinking about how technology changes the way we think of the body: how we often treat our smartphones as extensions of ourselves, et cetera. In this sense, I think the Butlerian framework has really proved prescient.

Uh, so yeah: not only is gender socially constructed, but to the extent we should even bother with the notion, there's no reason to think sex isn't either. And that's anti-essentialism about gender and sex.

This, from her experience, normally provokes more of a reaction. This was one of the first times she'd taught this material in Dublin, and she didn't know if it was the early hour, or herself, or the weird Irish reticence — so different from the US — to discuss things, but she looked out to a sea of apathetic slouched bodies.

But actually, if she had had superhuman eyesight, capable of taking in the faces of everyone in the room, she would have noticed two people, on completely opposite sides of the big room, both literally on the edge of their seats. These people were Jules and Carrie. Carrie, a thrilled smiler, was on the edge of her seat because she was fascinated. Jules was a noiseless groaner, and was on the edge of his seat because he really needed a piss.

— And, uh, well, I hope the strikingness of this thesis impresses you. And here I think Kant ...

And she said this in the American way, still not used to the Anglophone European 'a' which makes the sage of Königsburg's name almost into the worst profanity.

— Is kinda relevant, because you can sort of view this as a Kantian claim that the body is a Ding-an-sich, that it's inaccessible, indeed nothing shorn of the conceptual resources in which we, uh, clothe it: we make the body by what we say about it, just as for Kant we make the world spatio-temporal by applying our built-in concepts to it. And if people are interested in Butler's Kantianism ...

And this was again, despite the fact she felt she wasn't being heeded, in the tone of talking to rather than at.

— Actually, I myself have a paper on that, and would be super happy to discuss it with you.

With better eyes, she would have noticed both Jules and Carrie scribble something at this point; Jules wrote illegibly and unhelpfully 'Kant paper', Carrie 'See Rosen(?) re B and Kant', the question mark taking the place where the date of publication should be cited, and 'Rosen' being the lecturer's name.

— But the point is, what's relevant for our immediate purposes? Well, I guess there are three things:

One, there's the pushing back against the sex/gender distinction. Two, there's the empirical stuff about drag, intersex, transgender people. And, like I include here our texts: so the approach to the body in Beckett's novels, the Shakespeare comedies with cross-dressing and misidentifications, and all that. Three, then there's the Kantian foundations.

And not all of this will be relevant, depending on which essay you choose. But at least the fluidity of the concept of body — the social construction of sex — will be relevant no matter what, and if you write on Butler in the exam you'll need to know it all.

And, uh, I guess that's about it for today. So discuss this with your tutors this week and any questions please email. And next week, as I said, we'll do the sort of opposing position, so try and read that Cisoux. I know it's not easy, but just give it a go and we'll talk about it next week.

Already at the start of the last sentence, there had been a rumble and the snap of myriad laptops being closed. Jules and Carrie left with the rest of them, by separate exits, and were soon caught up in different dispersing crowds making the hubbub sound that most crowds, regardless of their sonic composition, end up making, and heading for the same place.

* * *

— So when did you realize that philanthropy was for you?

— Oh, well, I mean, isn't it for everybody?

Three days later, Jules and Carrie were lying together on her single bed in the halls in Dartry, she with her head on his chest, he with his lips on her forehead. It was coming up to 5pm, and already the sky through the window was dark blue, and people laden with shopping bags were shouting evening plans across the square.

Jules was working on micromicrotransactions. Microtransactions are small payments for small things; instead of subscribing to an online paper, you pay a small amount, say 25 cents, for each article you want to read. Similarly, you buy songs instead of albums, episodes instead of box sets, and so on.

Jules's thought was to go one level lower: to get people to sign up for his site 1010 (said 'one oh one oh'), and pledge to make a micromicrotransaction to a charity for every microtransaction one made. The suggested value was 10 percent, like a contemporary equivalent of tithing. The thought was that these transactions would be so small that people wouldn't notice or care, and so they'd find themselves doing good despite themselves, indeed constantly being tiny forces for good in the world.

— Yeah, but not everybody does anything about it. What made you do something about it?

— CS302, Computers and Society.

— Oh. So it's just for a grade?

— I mean, no, I really think it's good, if it would work, that it would work. I mean, that's obvious, right? That helping people is good ... but it's like, maybe I don't like really feel it on a deep visceral level like I think you maybe do ...

He had been impressed yesterday when, standing outside the arts block, Carrie had gone up to an old lady who looked lost and distressed and offered to help her, as others stood around gawping.

— But that's not bad. There's different ways you can help people. For me, it's like, I'm good at patching. Do you know what that is?

— Like ... sewing?

— No, no ... say you've got a piece of code that's meant to do something, and it doesn't work. Just doesn't work. You type it out exactly like in the textbook, say ...

He started to get up.

— What are you doing?

— I just want to write it, show you a bit of pseudo-code.

— Please, in fact, don't show me a bit of pseudo-code. Continue to be my pillow.

— Okay, well, basically sometimes a program won't work, but you can play with it so it does, and it doesn't do it like it's meant to ... wait, this is easier — say your chair has one too-short leg, and you put something under it to steady it. That's like patching it, getting it to perform its function in a different way, mending it, and like, the way I see it, this micromicrotransaction stuff is like a patch. Like humans should be good, but for whatever fucked-up reason they're aren't, so I patch 'em up, make 'em be good in a weird way, sort of like trick 'em by making being good psychologically unrecognisable ... you think that's weird?

— Well ... it's different. But I can see it, I guess. But, do you not think that it should come from within, that people should be good because they want to be?

— Nah. I mean how's that been working out so far in human history? If there were such things as forced labour camps where the labour was to be good, I'd be down with them.

— Wait, wait ... what about this — if you could hypnotize one person to constantly do altruistic acts his whole life, would you?

— I don't know ... see that's the thing with you philosophy types, it's always these silly cases. Point is, micromicrotransactions are nothing like that, they know what they're doing, no trickery.


Excerpted from "Coming from Nothing"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Matthew McKeever.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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