More than Nothing: Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon Number”

A new craze is surging across the internet: “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”. According to Wikipedia, it is “a variation on ‘six degrees of separation’ which posits that everyone in the world is no more than six acquaintance links from anyone else on Earth…The game requires a group of players to try to connect any individual to Kevin Bacon as quickly as possible and in as few links as possible.” Google has promoted the game by allowing users to type the name of any actor or actress into its search engine followed by the tag “Bacon number”: it then calculates and displays the said number (i.e., number of degrees of separation he or she has from Bacon). Obviously – or so one might think – Kevin Bacon has a “Bacon number” of 0 because there are no degrees of separation between him and himself.

The question I would like to pose is this: what is the precise value of Bacon’s Bacon number? In other words, what exactly does 0 mean here? On the surface, the meaning is simple: since Bacon is himself, there cannot be any degree of separation between Bacon and Bacon. Yet philosophers would disagree. At the beginning of Sickness unto Death Kierkegaard claims that a “self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation”. A self is an active self-relation that must constantly relate itself to itself in order to endure in its selfhood. Kevin Bacon is many things: a man, an actor, a celebrity, an American, but he is not entirely reducible to any one or several of these predicates. Paradoxically, he can only continue to be those things for as long as he resists being reduced to them. As Žižek writes:

On the one hand, subject is pure negative universality; an identity-with-itself which “repels”, makes abstractions of, all its determinate content (“I” am not any one of my determinations but the universality which simultaneously encompasses and negates them); yet on the other hand, “I” is this abstract power of negativity which has come into existence in the very domain of its determinations…[1]

In other words, the subject is a ceaseless oscillation between “abstract-negative universality (abstraction of all determinate content)” and “the vanishing point of pure singularity”. A subject is not so much a thing as the process of a thing relating itself to itself; or, as Hegel has it: substance is subject, and vice versa.

Thus, Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon number” of 0 is misleading, since it implies an inert, atemporal being-in-itself, lacking all dynamic negativity. In truth, however, Zero here is in cahoots with the One. For Hegel, the “One cannot coincide with Something”:

The being of Something is therefore always a being-for-other…; one attains the One only when this other, something-other for which something is, is reflected into the (some)thing itself as its own ideal unity – that is to say, when something is no more for something-else but for itself…[T]he Void is precisely the reflection-into-self of the Otherness…[T]he Void is not external to the One, it dwells in its very heart.[2]

The self is a constant process of insistence on (One’s) unity and integrity in, through and beyond the enabling-disabling relation with and for an Other. For Kevin Bacon to be Kevin Bacon, 0 must constantly propel itself into 1. More than that, this qualitative One of self-relation is the precondition for inscription within the symbolic order as the quantitative One; the Bacon number 0 is positively charged and contains within itself the condition of possibility for all other Bacon numbers.

[1] Slavoj Žižek, For They Know Not What They Do (London: Verso, 2008), p. 47.

[2] Ibid, pp. 51-52.


5 thoughts on “More than Nothing: Kevin Bacon’s “Bacon Number”

  1. stromgeist says:

    Actually, the Bacon number is an analogy to the Erdős number which indicates the “collaborative distance” between a person and mathematician Paul Erdős, “as measured by authorship of mathematical papers.” – In the case of Bacon, the relation represented by the number is also a functional one. At least initially (invented as a ‘theory’ for the “John Stewart Show” by three students in 1994), the Bacon number should prove that “every actor in Hollywood could be connected to Kevin Bacon with typically two or three links” (Barabási: Linked 59). So originally the Bacon number actually ‘reduces’ Bacon to his identity as a Hollywood actor. Just as the relation to Erdős is measured in relation to ones (social) function ‘(co-)authorship’, just so the relation to Beacon is (was) measured in relation to ones (social) funtion ‘actor’.

    Given that constraint, Bacon should or cannot be adressed as a self-relating subject. In other words, the subject in this game is neither the “abstract-negative universality (abstraction of all determinate content)” of being John Malkovitch Kevin Bacon nor the “the vanishing point of [his] pure singularity”, but his concrete-positive identity in his profession (=the construction of his social function). E.g. somebody with Bacon number 11 could be a friend who seems to be less acquainted to him because he never played in the ‘right’ movies but is in fact much closer to him than a familiar colleague of Bacon who has B-number 1 but does not share any ‘private’ knowledge and feelings with him.

    Obviously, the internate craze of the Bacon game trancended the original constraint of the Bacon number (regarding the ‘actor’ function). A fortiori, we see how the game universalizes a functional view of human relationships rather than reflecting the problem of the subject respectively the self. In this sense you’re absolutely right that “Bacon number 0 is positively charged and contains within itself the condition of possibility for all other Bacon numbers.”

    1. Daniel Hartley says:

      This is an excellent critique. The only thing I would want to add is that the social function of “actor” is a very peculiar one. Because acting is surely the one social function of all social functions which presupposes the subject’s minimal distance from himself. To act is to pretend to be someone else, to lie as if it were to tell the truth, and occasionally to tell the truth as if it were a lie: none of these social activities would be possible without the minimal gap between the zero and itself.

      1. stromgeist says:

        Good point! But speaking of an actor as a social function, I actually adressed the profession as a (Hollywood) movie actor: someone who is explicitely indicated and known ‘as’ an actor who plays a decided role for us in terms of entertainment, and for himself in terms of individual fulfilment (vocation) and/or livelihood (money). These three purposes are socially (financially and aesthetically) defined designations of the function ‘movie-actor’. In this narrower sense I used the term.

        But you’re right, in a broader sense (pointing to Erwing Goffman) acting is a basic social function based on the gap between the “Me” and the “I”. If we carry this idea a bit further we could be inclined to ask for the Kevin Bacon within us: the ever vanishing and recurring guy who is not more than two or three degrees of separation involved in our daily self(s).

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