The absence of a sign is the sign of an absence

It may seem counter intuitive, but an empty space may be as expressive in specific circumstances as would be a present object. Of course there are obvious taboos in a society that deliberately lead to an absence of a sign, although the object, process, system itself is present, maybe even formative for the culture. This is more a conscious renouncement, like the omission of specific politically uncorrect expressions (see? I did it – no examples given).

The categories are sometimes blurred, but the more dire version of an absence of signification is the one one can not see from within the system of signs one uses to handle the world. These absent signs lie in the blind spot of cognisance that Heinz von Foerster describes as metaphor for things we won’t know and systemically won’t know that we won’t know them – thus, with this metaphor, creating a sign for something not easily expressable before. You can find the physiological phenomenon and an experiment described here.
For culture, this may be the omission of systemic forces in political discourse in a liberal market society, with a demand of a  high degree of autonomy and responsibility from its ‚free‘ participants; or the seemingly wide spread notion of persons of wealth and power in our societies, that they just shape the ‚content‘ – e.g. power, money, concrete decisions – by entitlement of ‚hard work‘, ‚expertise‘ etc.; and not the ‚rules‘ within these decisions are made; or how ‚hard work‘ or ‚expertise‘ is defined. A good example to render this kind of blind spot visible is Garry Shirts‘ 1969 famous game of „Starpower“.

It is easier to see these blind spots from the outside; and being aware of others‘ – or other cultures‘ blind spots of cognition may help searching for one’s own blind spots. Rather spectacularly illustrated is this in this experiment by ethnographers researching color perception with the Himba, a Namibian tribe that has different concepts for colors than ‚we‘ do – and vice-versa. As Heinz von Foerster put it:

„Something that cannot be explained cannot be seen.“
– Heinz von Foerster (1979), „Cybernetics of Cybernetics“

Blind spots are by necessity not something to avoid – or that we would be even be able to avoid – but are signs in its truest sense. They order and simplify our view on the world, they deliver us from the unbearable burden to be aware of everything, to expect everything, to be everybody ever possible. This specific absences constitute us and our cultures, and are as specific as a fingerprint. We may shift these blind spots around, we may creatively collect different blind spots, despite cognitive dissonance, but we won’t get rid of them.

In art or formative education (german „Bildung“), the shift of blind spots, or raising the awareness for them, is an important task. One of the most challenging tasks for artist and educators alike is the invention of formal system of expression to handle these blind spots, and to let other ‚feel‘ the absence of signs as something peculiar, valuable, stabilising – and sometimes disastrous.

Media hints:

  • Garry Shirts‘ game „Starpower“
  • Yes Men – political-public interventions
  • Improv Everywhere – artistic-public interventions