The infinite, my dear friend, is no big deal— it’s a matter of writing— the universe exists only on paper.
—Paul Valéry, Monsieur Teste
The obliteration of the external in Valery’s Monsieur Teste is at the core of our current malaise, our strange relation to ourselves and to the simulated infosphere we’ve constructed for ourselves out of language and desire: a dwelling and habitation of self and society at once irrealist and totalized. The sense that as Luciano Floridi tells us we are witnessing an epochal, unprecedented migration of humanity from its Newtonian, physical space to the infosphere itself as its Umwelt, not least because the latter is absorbing the former. As a result, humans will be inforgs among other (possibly artificial) inforgs and agents operating in an environment that is friendlier to informational creatures. And as digital immigrants like us are replaced by digital natives like our children, the latter will come to appreciate that there is no ontological difference between infosphere and physical world, only a difference in levels of abstraction.1
Of course the downside to this migration is that the body will become a mere disposable piece of furniture, a sort of waste factory for the disembodied inforgs of some hyperrealist paradise without affect or life. Those like Floridi who dream of ideal utopian worlds of abstraction remind us that we are still hooked to certain ultra-modernist conceptions without realizing it. Reading Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co. I come across this tidbit on Marcel Duchamp:
Duchamp’s life was his finest work of art. He abandoned painting very early on and embarked on a daring adventure in which art was conceived, first and foremost, as a cosa mentale [matter of mind], in the spirit of Leonardo da Vinci. He wanted always to place art at the service of the mind and it was precisely this desire – driven by his particular use of language, by chance, optics, films and, above all, by his famous “readymades” – which stealthily undermined 500 years of Western art and transformed it completely. Duchamp abandoned painting for over fifty years because he preferred to play chess. Isn’t that wonderful?2
In his work on Kabbalah the scholar Moshe Idel will describe the Torah as a model for “absorbing perfection”. Harold Bloom describing this work will tell us of Idel’s notions, saying,
What Idel calls “the absorbing quality of the Torah” is akin to the absorbing quality of Shakespeare or of Joyce. Strong authors, like sacred texts, can be defined as those with the capacity to absorb us. To “absorb,” in American English, means several related processes: to take something in as through the pores, or to engross one’s full interest or attention, or to assimilate fully. Idel defines his “absorbing”:
I use this term in order to convey the expanding comprehensiveness of the concept of the text which, moving to the center of the Jewish society, also integrated attributes reminiscent of wider entities like the world or God. This expansion facilitated the attribution of more dynamic qualities to the text conceived of as capable of allowing various types of influences on processes taking place in the world, in God, and in the human psyche.3
This relates to what Floridi said above as the Infosphere as an “absorbing” machine. The notion that our world is becoming an ontological cyber-spacetime continuum, our networked lives of work and play are absorbing all of our attention, leaving us destitute of life, of love, of desire: that we are nothing more than surplus value in a system of absorption. This sense of the Book, Torah, Infosphere as absorption and influencing-machine, of an expanding system slowly gobbling up more and more territory as it deterritorializes self and world into its machinic matrix; that as we are being absorbed by the externality of society and its relations, being pulled into is networks of signification, plugged into its machinic assemblages; that the very truth of our subjectivity is being captured and absorbed by powers beyond us: this is part of the Marxian heritage as well. The notion that we are being absorbed into the machine, that our minds and bodies are nothing more than energy value systems to be absorbed by capital. That it is feeding on our surplus and excess, that what it leaves in its wakes is the subject or self as depressed and vacated emptiness and destitution. Yet, at the same time it will effect on some a sense of paranoia (Burroughs, Pynchon), a sense that an all-pervasive system of surveillance and subterfuge is taking over our lives, colonizing our minds with strange attractors, memes of alien import. This wavering between absorption and escape, seeking lines of flight out of the matrix, a way to free ourselves from this sense of dread that pervades every waking moment: a sense of panic as terminal exception. That the world and ourselves with it is as Phil Dick would once say, is “out of joint”.
Sometimes I ask myself: What’s the point, why do I write? What am I doing with it? Does it really serve a purpose? Is it more than just the mental waste of my daily struggles against boredom and apathy? Or is there truly some secret mission in this impossible task of writing? Writing becomes a sort of meditation on either my own or other people’s thoughts; yet it’s in actively accessing and working through these thoughts that one conceives for the first time one’s own relation to thought itself. Isn’t writing a sort of dialectical working through of one’s own self image: a fetish object that appropriately enough becomes the ultimate commodity that is uniquely one’s own – the Self as commodity fetish? A parody object of the true subjectivation that has been captured by the logic of capital?
Or, is this merely the truth of the liberal Subject, a project with its deep roots in Medieval barter and trade economies: the self as a bit of barter that can be traded for a bit of sustenance? A survival manual for the modern Subject as slave-work of writing, a cultural analogue of the victimization of what would become the ultimate enslavement of the mind in late capitalism as the creative class: the cognitariat enslaved to the fractalization of a pure time-slave economics no longer connected to the outside, the body, the material world of real subjects? Or, has the signifier itself, the immaterial materialism of the signifier (Lacan) that in the interior movement of sublimation, a dialectical movement of the “blind” compulsion-to-repeat, the Kierkegaard-Freudian pure repetition (what Hegel would know as the internalization of the external): the difficult struggle of subject and its opposite, its shadow-image, the blind non-sublatable repetition, the war of self and non-self within the abyssal ground of its own nothingness, its own core – the truth of the ultimate gesture that is neither reconciliation nor expulsion but is rather the acknowledgement and recognition that the excess of negativity at the core of one’s self is the Subject itself?4
Is this task of writing after all just to admit the truth that capitalism is nothing more than the logic of writing? Something that, as Derrida would say, “even a poetic or oracular sentence, carries with it a system of rules for producing…”. Of course for him it was the production of “analogous things”, but is this not to produce subjectivities? Is this not the actual truth of writing: is it not a the ultimate machine for producing subjectivity? Are we not after all producing ourselves, constructing ourselves? In all the intricate architectural modalities, the word empires, the signs of infinite traces: are not these endless reveries revolving around nothing (ness) nothing more than the creation ex nihilo of our own Self-as-Writing?
Maybe what we’re doing when we write is to build a home for our actual life, a site where we can suspend it in media res: whisper to it to go on and exist out there beyond us, take on the hue of reality. Maybe we are all realists in that sense: and writing is the actual proof that we exist in the world. Maybe it’s how we grasp the ontological core of our own being. If we are essentially nothingness, a void of self-reflecting nothingness as philosophers like Zizek suggest, and that out of this very nihil thought is born: then what is thought? How does it arise out of nothingness? Maybe the question is: What is it that makes a new idea or concept? Maybe we are seeking a concept within which like a sphereological symphony we can dwell, a place of no place, a utopian event that will bring us finally to that still point (Eliot) where we connect to all those signifiers that no longer refer to anything other that the other we are?
Harold Bloom used to argue that poetry is new when it decreates thought rather than creating it: it’s the power to unravel another writer’s meaning, to uncreate it and displace it with one’s own being (thought) that is the Sublime. This sense of overcoming the other not through some competitive battle or agon to the death, but rather through a dialectical reversal in that as others read one’s work they will discover that you were the very source for the precursor poet’s poetry; that the other poet had stolen his essential truths from your truth rather than the other way round. He would term this metalepsis. The sense that you arrived earlier on the scene and developed the poetic dwelling that the other poet ultimately inhabited. Maybe we are multiple after all? This multiplicity where words that are neither one’s own nor an other’s suddenly begin to dwell temporally in the movement of the text like butterflies alighting upon certain flowers will leave their fragrance. Martin Heidegger would see poetry as a dwelling to be inhabited: “how is a man – and this means every man and all the time-supposed to dwell poetically?” (Heidegger 2001, 211).
It was in this work that Heidegger finds in art a way of thinking openly, non-metaphysically, and will then show how in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking” Heidegger attempts to demonstrate how one could think differently from Western metaphysics, if one were to adopt towards experience the kind of openness that is required for the reception of art. The origin of the work of art, therefore, is the disclosure of the world on its own terms, that is, the fact that beings are revealed to us in experience. Surely it would be something very special if we could experience the world, as long as possible, the same way we experience a work of art. But how could we? The final contention of this essay is that in “Building, Dwelling, Thinking,” Heidegger does not really tell us how we could experience and think our world differently, but he shows us. ‘Poetically man dwells’ is a line Heidegger takes from Hölderlin, but, given his view of art as originating from the disclosure of beings, we may see it as an idea he shapes as a kind of response to the experience of artworks as ‘things’. But before we get to seeing how dwelling is poetic, we need to see what dwelling is.
Dwelling is a certain, careful way of living, for Heidegger. To the extent that it has this element of care, it is a life of ‘building’. The building activity humans live out is two-fold: it constructs and it cultivates. Building as ‘construction’ is something we do, for example, when we build a skyscraper, but building as ‘cultivating’ is an act of maintaining something. This mark of maintenance, of preserving, in human living or dwelling requires that we stand in a certain relation to our environment. Standing in a certain relation to experience is the mark of a dweller, for Heidegger. The dweller stands in a way that lends itself to Heidegger’s attempt at crafting a thinking to overcome metaphysics, because the dwelling lives in a relation of openness to our world, not in one of mastery. Heidegger calls what I am calling ‘openness’ here a free relation to reality, free in that it spares that to which it relates, or leaves it “in its own essence,” on its own terms, in a “preserve of peace”. Letting things be, sparing them, is the essence of dwelling. In his depiction of dwellers as essentially ‘open’ thinkers, Heidegger describes their efforts at interpreting the world around them as necessarily poetic.
Obviously words are already connected to the social mind and are not personal at all. So that language is already a social dwelling. We learn language from others, even if as some linguists suggest its a hard-wired feature in our brain; that we have the capacity to learn language from the beginning. Yet, if we do not learn it early in life as some feral children haven not, it cannot be taught after a certain age. Why? Does the brain have some innate time-window that it shuts down at some point, or is it that if it is not activated it atrophies? (I need to research this.) See already I am lost amid strange thoughts. Wandering. Maybe what Enrique says of Baudelaire is even more apropos: We have learnt to respect tricksters. In his note for an unwritten preface for The Flowers of Evil, Baudelaire advised the artist not to reveal his innermost secrets – and thus revealed his own: “Does one show to a now giddy, now indifferent public the working of one’s devices? Does one explain all those revisions and improvised variations, right down to the way one’s sincerest impulses are mixed in with tricks and with the charlatanism indispensable to the work’s amalgamation.” (p. 58)
He also speaks of Joseph Joubert – who wondered how to look in the right place when one does not even know what one is looking for – reflects in his diary on the difficulties he had finding a refuge or adequate space for his ideas: “My ideas! I can’t seem to manage to build a house where they can live.” Such an adequate space he may have imagined as a cathedral which would fill the entire firmament. An impossible book. Joubert foreshadows Mallarmé’s ideals: “It would be tempting,” writes Blanchot, “and at the same time glorious for Joubert to see in him an untranscribed first edition of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, of which Valéry said, ‘It finally raised a page to the potential of the starry sky.’” (p. 51)
The French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux in his The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des would find in this poem a way to continue his own writings on the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity saying that Mallarme’s poem constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry: the fractured lines spanning the double page; the typographical play borrowed from the poster form; the multiple interpolations disrupting reading. But the intrigue of this poem is still stranger and has always resisted full elucidation. We encounter a shipwreck, and a Master, himself almost submerged, who clasps in his hand the dice that, confronted by the furious waves, he hesitates to throw. The hero expects this throw, if it takes place, to be extraordinarily important: a Number said to be unique and which cannot be any other . The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child s game: All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but a sole condition that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de des, like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of the siren that emerges for a lightning flash among the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.5
What is this shipwreck other than the subjective movement of our nothingness in search of itself, a path to the – as Meillassoux would have it, the “Great Outdoors”? Are we after all seeking a way out of language rather than some difficult movement toward the center of the labyrinth? Is language after all just a an infinite trap, a labyrinth to hide us from our truth, our selves? Are we after all the creations of others? Is this mimetic struggle a mere dance in a hall of mirrors? A sort of infinite regression of copies upon copies struggling against each other in an endless game of hide-and-seek? Was Borges on to something in his metamorphic play of Compasses and Mirrors? A cartography of the absolute that ends up chasing itself forever in the protean dance of metamorphosis that is writing and language?
Is this truly the old trite cliché of who comes first the “chicken or the egg”: a false logic that forgets the Outside? Have we severed ourselves from the Outside, closed ourselves off in this labyrinth to defend ourselves? And against whom or what? Or, is this too a paranoiacs dream of writing, rather than its cure? A gaze that takes the copy for the real thing? Should we not rather crack the mirror, break it into a thousand shards (allow the seven years of bad luck)? Maybe language is the prison house of consciousness after all, and we are the border patrol in a war that we ourselves created, manufactured out of fear of an enemy that never actually existed except as the fiction of our own Self as freedom. Do we after all fear the truth of freedom? Maybe what we fear is the hidden side our own delusions, the unconscious which we so contest as either pure nothingness or as the factory of possibility?
Of course it is just here that philosophy of materialism makes its final stand: between the Lacanian-Hegelian dialectic of lack that desires its lost objects, its petite a; and, the Deleuze-Guattarian fullness, a productive unconscious without lack – a desiring machines that produces multiplicities in abundance? Is this after all the final movement in a long history of the Subject being played out in our time? Maybe writing is this strange journey into the ocean of being, a sort of endless quest to articulate what is essentially inarticulable – the truth or non-truth of the Subject: the other side of language that can never truly reveal what is in itself invisible to words. Yet, it is this very inability of language to articulate the impossibility of becoming Subject that drives us to write. In that sense writing is a never ending quest for the incompleteness of the future of the Subject as an open-ended never-ending project. Of society and civilization as the site of this contested battle and struggle to attain humanity? Maybe we have yet to attain humanity? Instead of becoming post-human maybe we are only now truly beginning to realize that we have yet to become human. A future only we can complete in our lives and writings. What kind of future should I write into existence? Is this too a utopian possibility? But then again utopia is in no-place, and no-time; neither future nor past. A site that is situated just this side of hell and paradise: a limbo land of gray tones where we as shadows struggle in a world of shadows to become at once copy and image: images that truly become real (is this Plato or Zizek, Ideal or Material?). Maybe what writing entails is just life itself lived in this moment that I’m writing. Maybe this is my dwelling place after all.
1. Floridi, Luciano (2013-10-10). The Ethics of Information (p. 16). Oxford University Press, USA. Kindle Edition.
2. Vila-Matas, Enrique (2007-05-23). Bartleby & Co. (p. 56). New Directions. Kindle Edition.
3. Professor Moshe Idel. Absorbing Perfections: Kabbalah and Interpretation (p. xiii). Kindle Edition.
4. Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 90). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
5. Quentin Meillassoux The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des Urbanomic/Sequence Press (May 1, 2012)