When Empty Things Aren’t Empty


The opposite of existence is not nonexistence, but insistence: that which does not exist, continues to insist, striving toward existence… When I miss a crucial ethical opportunity, and fail to make a move that could ‘change everything’, the very nonexistence of what I should have done will haunt me for ever: although what I did not do does not exist, its spectre continues to insist.

Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real

Today at Spectechnique the topic is “when empty things aren’t empty.”

I want to start off w/ a video of a certain Slovenian philosopher beloved by grad students the world over:

Money quote:

The hero visits a cafeteria and orders coffee without cream. And here is the wonderful reply of the waiter: “Sorry, we have run out of cream, we only have milk. Can I then bring you coffee without milk?”

Coffee without cream and coffee without milk are chemically the same substance, but philosophically, they’re no longer the same thing.

As Žižek puts it,

What you don’t get is part of the identity of what you do get.

As speculative fiction writers, we need to remember to show our characters thinking this way too. Because what’s not present in their selections can say a lot about them and about their setting.

“A cheeseburger, please — no fries, no ketchup. What? No, no soda either, thanks”

A phone that lacks a touchscreen or a camera or 4G connectivity.

“I’ll take a Bloody Mary, hold the blood.”

If you’re fond of using jargon in your future settings, you can also this device to subtly hint at what your made-up products actually do.

He slapped a caffeine-free stimpatch to his shaven scalp and took a deep breath.

In language, 0 +1 – 1 never quite equals 0 again…. just as X + 0 never quite equals X.

What I mean by this is that many commonly used idioms are “empty” in terms of logical content. They add no propositional meaning to the sentence, but they have so many extra valences and connotations that we find them indispensable. Here are just a few.

It is what it is.

I’m just saying…

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

That’s really something.

There’s no time like the present.

Last, I want to present a technique that’s kind of the opposite of the “coffee without cream” technique. You could call it a kind of false reassurance, or a reassurance that does the opposite. The quote comes from “Sarrasine,” a second-tier Balzac short story.

Having been greated warmly enough by most of those present, whom he knew by sight, he sought to approach the armchair on which La Zambinella was casually reclining.

Commentary from S/Z, Roland Barthes’s structuralist analysis of the story:

Sarrasine is greeted warmly enough — a curious qualifier: by reducing a possible extremely or very, it reduces the positive itself: these warm enough greetings are actually something less than warm, or, at least, warm with embarrassment and reticence.

From a naive point of view, being greeted “warmly enough” might seem okay; since you get the warmth that you expected, nothing has really gone wrong.


COME ON!!! Do you really to hear your boss say that your work is “good enough,” or for your sweetheart to embrace you “passionately enough,” or go to a restaurant where the food is “tasty enough”? I should hope not!

In fiction, not only are empty things not empty — when we insist that they’re definitely full, they mysteriously get a little bit emptier.

Maybe this is why understated emotional beats are almost always more convincing than bombastic ones…? Hmmmm, wonder if there’s an article in this….

Anyway, visit SpecTechnique tomorrow for an article about the device of cutting to the present tense in a past-tense story. See u later #nerds …

One Response to “When Empty Things Aren’t Empty”

  1. Interestingly enough, my brother–in–law took me to McDonald’s and we both had an egg and cheese McMuffin bagel. However, they are either sausage or bacon, and he had to specify ‘no sausage’. I told him I wanted mine without bacon “…because it’s less calories.”

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