“Nothing contains the sound of one hand clapping, the hole in the doughnut, the sound of a tree falling in the forest when no one is there to hear it, the incident no one talks about.” So says the selling tag line for this special gift. It continues “What’s the perfect gift to give to those who have everything?” Nothing! No, not nothing as in nothing at all, but a gift object called ‘nothing’ which essentially paper and plastic packaged up as if to present a small something but instead there is nothing inside. In many ways I find this hilarious. If someone presented this to me on Christmas day, I would consider it the perfect gift (“wow, thanks, so you were listening during those long Heideggerian diatribes!!”). I always say I don’t want anything, and as a budding philosopher, quasi-Heideggerian, it provokes delicious philosophical questions – which is exactly what I want on a snow smothered Christmas morning. However, as an example of the logic of late capitalist consumer novelty, it is horribly revealing.
The object itself has prestige value as being a ‘quirky’ unique object of mild amusement and ultimately as a presentable ornament. Just as a blow-glass dolphin isn’t particularly practical, it is non the less, an ornament for someone’s enjoyment. It has an aesthetic appeal that Dolphin lovers can’t resist, bringing a little bit of dolphin cuteness into their lives. But, the gift of ‘nothing’, while not being particularly cute, for fills the same ornamental function and more. A glass-blown dolphin is a banal gift, yet ‘nothing’ isn’t. Why? It is a perversion in many ways. First, in this age of recycling and environmental concern, it seems to be a particularly brutal waste of materials. But I would argue, it’s value lies in the fact that it is ‘nothing’ and not something at all. How many robot dinosaurs will be given to overexcited kids on Christmas morning only to have been smashed into small pieces in some brutal act of mindless destruction? I myself may have done this countless times as a youngster (“play nicely Michael!” “No!” [smash] . Ah, good times). The use value is marginal in a gift, it is the symbolic value that is essential. Derridian notions of ‘the gift’ aside, it must be noted that it beautifully presents us with the logic of late capitalism, something that was probably known by the university educated people who were (more than likely) sniggering away while they designed this product.
As Fredrick Jameson notes in Postmodernism, or The Cultural logic of Late Capitalism, “aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally: the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes)”. The place of our gift of ‘nothing’ takes the logic of novelty to its obviously conclusion – to give nothing is still to give something, as in postmodernity there is nothing but simulacra swirling around empty centers. This object has the effect of not only showing the vacuous nature of the gift, but more importantly, the imperative of gift giving that dominates the event of collective consumer ejaculation that is Christmas. To give ‘nothing’ is the literal giving of a presence and absence at the core of every gift. But more than this, in contrast to a precious glass-blown dolphin, this gift could only work at this time (late capitalism) as it demonstrates the tyranny of the symbolic over the material, the empty gesture over substantiality, of uselessness over the useful, the vacuous over the voluptuous. The fact that this product exists means there is at least some desire for such things (I’m not saying they’re going to be a smash hit this Christmas) and thus shows that as an aspect of excessive production and the imperative for novelty seems to have reached its logical limit in this absurd pretense of a gift.