In Praise of Nothing

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Eric Lemay: In Praise of Nothing

Lately, I enjoy watching nothing. Not nothing in the sense of nothing—not, that is, not watching—but watching nothing happen while I’m watching. In a word, webcams: those video cameras set up around the world that stream images live, in real time, to my laptop.

Through websites like earthcam.com, I watch lights flash and die along the Tokyo skyline or pedestrians stray down Hollywood Boulevard, lingering on the Walk of Fame. On my phone, I have an app that loads random cameras from around the world. I watch the haggard grass in South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park or the evening traffic in Moscow City. My favorite camera frames an altar in what must be a Catholic or Orthodox Church in Borsice, a village in the Czech Republic. The icon at the center of the altar stays lit all night, which for me is most of the day.

I particularly like watching this webcam because nothing ever happens—I’ve never seen anyone in the church—and it’s that nothing I like. I don’t, for example, want to watch an elephant in the Addo Elephant National Park. I want to watch the watering hole and the wind-touched grass and the minutes tick by in South African Standard Time with nothing happening but the wind I can’t see and light that doesn’t change and the slight hitch in the image that happens every thirty seconds that tells me the image is still live, still streaming nothing.

Often, I watch nothing in traffic or waiting for takeout or when other people are checking email or texting. I pretend I’m checking email or texting, but instead I watch nothing. And now, even when I’m watching something, a TV show or movie, I focus on the area of the image that has the most nothing: the out-of-focus parking lot behind the actors, at the far edge of the frame; the knick-knacks in the foreground on the desktop. When video-conferencing, I watch what’s behind my interlocutor’s head, which is usually nothing.

I’m not sure why I’m drawn to nothing. Perhaps I’m escaping our culture’s overload of images through images. Perhaps I’m already so overloaded with images that I no longer need content, just the pure image, distilled to nothing. Perhaps I’m losing it. I do know I get tetchy if the webcam I’m watching shows more than nothing, or the wrong kind of nothing, or aspires in some artistic way to nothing: a nothing that, in showing nothing, attempts to mean more than nothing—a webcam pointed at a webcam, for example, or an intentionally empty room.

My ideal webcam, which I haven’t found, would show people only indirectly, by them not being in, but still being signaled by, nothing. I imagine a crumpled beer can, discarded in a brick alley, where weeds have worked up between the bricks and gone raggedy, and every so often the shadow of a car or garbage truck sweeps by, and the can rusts gradually or gets coated with snow, so I can’t read the label. I also imagine the corner of a gravel driveway, where the camera sits level with the stones, and the stones catch the hot noon sun.

Two decades ago, I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and what’s stuck with me ever since is Heller’s description of the bombardier Yossarian lying in bed, intentionally staring at the ceiling, watching nothing. Yossarian is trying to make himself as bored as possible, because when he’s bored, time slows down, and the more time slows down, the more time he has until he has to fight again and so the more time he has to live. “He had decided to live forever,” writes Heller, “or die in the attempt.” He lives through nothing.

Watching nothing, I don’t get bored, but I do, I think, make time. Maybe even see it, and I want to see as much time as I can for as long as I can, even if what I see is nothing.