Sunday, May 12, 2019

Ma Lessons

As a mental puzzle, I wonder how much time an average person spends each day thinking about nothing. For the next couple of minutes, I urge you not to switch off because I will, in fact, be writing about nothing.  

Broadly, and depending on the context, nothing is analogous to zero, empty, void, or zilch. Of the lot, perhaps none has a more colourful history than zero which, paradoxically, was invented to fill a mathematical void.


Like most things that we take for granted, there was a world before and after the symbol zero replaced a generic placeholder adopted by early civilisations. Credit for the invention of numerical zero goes to ancient India, from where it travelled to China, and then to the Middle East, before reaching Europe via Spain in the 11th century. Initially frowned upon by church leaders, who considered zero to be preposterously “satanic” and disruptive, nevertheless it became a useful tool for doing arithmetic and later gained favour among medieval merchants. Without zero, it is conceivable that the world of negative numbers, calculus, physics, engineering, economics and computers might not exist, at least not as we know it.

Almost as bizarre as the idea of zero is the Japanese concept of Ma. Just as algebraically-challenged people struggle to comprehend negative numbers, Ma embodies the notion of negative space and feeds into the Japanese psychic reverence for empty space. By definition, negative space is the void that exists within, between and around objects. You will be forgiven if you thought that Ma sounds like a new age contrivance. In reality, it has deep-rooted resonance on a cramped island nation where physical space is at a premium.

In simple terms, Ma connotes “not things, but the space between them.” This embrace of emptiness or negative space naturally found its way into Japanese architecture, landscape design, art, poetry and music, and has gradually seeped into the Western brand of minimalism.
    
So, how much has Ma penetrated Western consciousness? It is hard to tell. However, I am very intrigued by the British movement known as Meanwhile Space. Its stated mission is to “bring temporarily redundant space into productive use and to unlock underused space for enterprise and community cohesion.” In recent years, the glacial displacement of hundreds of high street shops in the UK by online retailers has gained negative momentum. In the wake of this unsettling transformation, the founders of Meanwhile Space conceptualised the ma_rvellous idea of ma_ximising the value of vacant, negative spaces between storefronts.

Meanwhile Space provides a brilliant peekaboo illustration of how to interact with empty space. Creatively, value can indeed be extracted from a void without permanently impinging on a bias to leave it bare. We should also remember that the non-materiality of an empty space does not imply that it should be disturbed, if the imposed activity is non-value adding.

From a human perspective, a Ma mindset teaches us to avoid physical and psychological clutter in our everyday lives. But just as nature presumably abhors a vacuum, there are people who experience kenophobia, or the fear of empty spaces. Closely related to the fear of solitude, sufferers often resort to therapy or anti-anxiety medications. For the vast majority who are non-sufferers, Ma poses the enduring challenge of how to master space without being overly intrusive.

All in all, the power of nothing is incontrovertible and, if you’ll pardon the syntax mishmash, never ever take nothing for granted. Surely, your dutiful Ma must have told you that.

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