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First-Year Interdisciplinary Seminar: The Idea of Nothing

Semester and Year FA 2017
Course Number FIRST-UG96
Section 001
Instructor Gregory Erickson
Days TR
Time 11:00 AM - 12:15 PM
Units 4
Level U


Open to Gallatin first-year students only.


Nothing. No-thing. Negative Space. Zero. Silence. Antimatter. Black holes. Aporias. Each of these terms communicates some aspect of the concept of nothingness, absence, or emptiness. Our very existence is framed by nothing, from the abyss of non-being before our birth to the nothingness of death at its conclusion. The understanding and portrayal of absence is perhaps one of humankind’s greatest mysteries, and has triggered explorations in all different fields of human activity. Whether in mathematics, physics, theater, philosophy, theology, literature, or visual art, nothingness as an idea has been explored, defined, and depicted in multiple and contradictory ways. “Nothing is, but what is not,” says Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but is it possible to speak or write of that which is not? Is our inability to define “nothing” a failure of langue or imagination or does it point to a larger cosmological truth? Is nothingness the negation of all historical and political meaning, or can it serve as a space in which to imagine another history, another political, or a better world? Composers use silence, painters use black or white, sculptors, installation artists and architects employ negative space, authors and poets try to create emptiness within or between words. This course will explore the dimensions of Nothingness as manifested in the arts, religions, philosophy, and science. Readings will include Parmenides, Plato, early Buddhist texts, medieval Christian and Jewish mystics, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, David Foster Wallace, and Stephen Hawking. We will look at art by Robert Ryman and Fred Sandbeck, listen to music by John Cage, and watch films and a Seinfeld episode. The class will include guest speakers and visits to museums and performances.


All Syllabi

Course Type

First-Year Program: Interdisciplinary Seminars (FIRST-UG)