Letters

The Nothingness That Speaks French

Quentin Meillassoux’s The Number and the Siren (published by Urbanomic and Sequence Press, and elegantly translated by Robin Mackay) is quite simply the most beautiful book by a philosopher that I have read for many years. It is a highly original reading of Stéphane Mallarmé’s Coup De Dés. 

If the objective of Meillassoux’s other book, After Finitude, is to be done with the philosophy of consciousness, the objective of The Number and the Siren is to be done with the philosophy of language. This is the other well-worn approach to correlation, which re-inscribed the giveness of the object to the thinking subject as the line that there is nothing outside the text, or no outside-text.

Mallarmé’s Coup De Dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hassard aka A Throw of Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, is a key source for those playful, effervescent philosophical and literary-critical languages – Blanchot, Derrida, Kristeva, Ranciere – one suspects Meillassoux of wanting entirely to leave behind.

A Throw of Dice is widely agreed to be a difficult poem. Meillassoux joins those who think it is not difficult but coded. The point is not to tease out ever lengthening chains of signification from it, but to crack the code. This has been attempted before, both by legit and crackpot cryptographers, and the effort usually founders on the inexact fit between the proposed code and the text. Just as Meillassoux makes the unreasoned possibility of contingency the key to solving the riddle of facticity, so too he makes the incompleteness of the code the key to solving the riddle of A Throw of Dice. The encoding is not exact, and this, he argues, may be just how Mallarmé intended it.

A Throw of Dice turns on the problem of what becomes of the passion of Christ once God is dead. Part of the brilliance of Meillassoux’s book is finding a serene rather than apocalyptic resolution to the passion without God.

What Mallarmé and Meillassoux may share is a “dream of an absolute Literature.”(6) Mallarmé proceeds via an inversion of Hegelian infinity. It is not being but nothingness that subsumes everything into itself, in a dialectic without subject or goal. Fixing the infinite is the program, not its becoming or dynamism. It is a non-Hegelian dialectic, one without progress, where nothingness and chance preside over letter and life alike. Mallarmé’s particular problem is the gamble undertaken by writing verse after the death of God. How can it not be arbitrary and senseless, and cast into the linguistic foam of the times in vain?

This is the situation of A Throw of Dice. At the denotative level, the poem reads something like a high-concept Robinsonade. A storm, perhaps a shipwreck. The Master is in the waves, clutching dice in his fist, hesitating over whether to cast them. After he sinks in the waters, sucked towards a whirlpool, only his hat remains. A siren appears and strikes with her tail the rock upon which the ship has foundered. A constellation appears, near or like the seven stars of the Great Bear, as if by a celestial dice throw.

The Master and the sea connote respectively the poet and language, but the rest? Meillassoux: “The destinies of the Master and his Poem are here interlaced. The old man tries his luck ‘against’ the sea, in the sense that he opposes to the furious wave of words exploding upon the foam of the Page the systematic reordering of a premeditated count. Inversely, the sea – that is to say, the Poem itself – tries its luck ‘via’ the old man. It is the initiative of the Master and his implicit coding upon which depends the destiny of the Coup de dés, its future recognition or non-recognition.” (104)

Its not just the words, it’s the code that the poet wagers in and against language. That there might be a numerical code might be of a certain geek interest. That the code might contain the concept of the poem is rather more than that. Three numbers have significance for Mallarmé: Twelve, the metrical count of the alexandrine poem; seven, the number of luck and chance itself; zero, the (non) number of nothingness.

Mallarmé had an elaborate liturgy in mind for the ritual performance of A Throw of Dice, the key to which is the number twelve. The ritual power of the strictly metered alexandrine would be displaced onto the situation in which his free verse poem was performed. But what of the seven and the zero?

The coded number of the poem will be the total of its words, the last of which is ”consecrated”, and that number is 707. But as to whether the words in the poem actually total 707 depends on what one counts as a word, and French has particular ambiguities about what is a compound of more than one word and what is not. Rather than count this a problem, Meillassoux makes it crucial to his whole reading. The poem hovers indeterminately around its special number, a constellation that flickers in and out of view.

The number coded in the poem doubles the number thrown by the Master at the last. Or not thrown: The Master hesitates between throwing and not throwing the dice in his hand. He throws a quavering number, an infinite and unique number. This throw of the dice does not so much abolish chance as shift levels, from being an instance of a chance, to being the instantiation of chance itself.

Mallarme’s A Throw of Dice is the text for a liturgy which embodies a universe without law or reason, with only contingency. Now that the old God is dead, poetry must take up the slack of the old religions, but in a new way. Meillassoux: “…to represent to a people its own mystery: such is for Mallarmé the Greek heritage upon which art… continues to feed. But, according to the poet, it is precisely representation that art must break with if it would claim to go beyond Christianity.” (108) A Throw of Dice is much more than just a poem about chance, it is the chancy thing itself.

This is indeed a key to the modern moment. The bourgeois revolutions kicked God from his throne, one way or another. In Aurelia, Nerval had declared that “Christ is no more! . . . And they do not know it yet.” Nietzsche’s God is dead; his contemporary Lautréamont had a rather more extreme reaction. Observes Lautréamont’s epic anti-hero, Maldoror: “Not finding what I sought I raised my dismayed gaze higher, still higher, until I caught sight of a throne fashioned from human excrement and gold upon which, with idiotic pride, body swathed in a shroud made of unwashed hospital sheets, sat he who called himself the Creator!”

If Christ is no more, God dead, or the Creator insane, then what guarantees the combined orders of life and language? What, or more significantly who, is the trustee presiding over the portals between this world and a higher one? Who can adjudicate the proper order of words and things by claiming to interpret the divine communication from that higher place? The answer contained in Lautréamont’s other brief text, written after Maldoror, is – nobody.

In the Poesies, Lautréamont writes: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It closely grasps an author’s sentence, uses his expressions, deletes a false idea, replaces it with the right one. To be well made, a maxim does not call for correction. It calls for development.” Who or what stands guarantee over that development? As the Platonov of Foundation Pit knows only too well – nothing.

The difference between Lautréamont and Mallarmé is that for the former, there is no guarantee; for the latter, nothingness is the guarantee. In Mallarmé, the trusty role of the poet, and in Meillassoux, that of the philosopher, as communicant between worlds, is retained in a ‘modern’ form.

The nonmodern answer might rather be Lautréamont. There are no guarantees for the fidelity of language to life, there is only détournement, or the appropriation and revision of language for the making of life. Lautréamont is the first poet of the labor point of view, which Platonov expands into a whole theory, and putatively a practice, as the Factory of Literature.

Lautréamont’s factory; Mallarmé’s casino. Meillassoux: “The ultimate singularity of Mallarme’s poetics – the idea that oriented his last writings – thus consisted in the quest for a ‘diffusion of the absolute’ emancipated from representation….” (112) The way he does it is not by representing the theme of a message in a bottle, “he actually threw such a bottle.” (116) The Master trusts in the divinity of infinite chance; Mallarmé trusts that the quavering number of the poem will be decoded some day, and probably by chance.

This is crucial, and part of the special beauty of Meillassoux’s approach to the poem. Chance governs every level of it. Meillassoux: “Here it falls to us to explain with greater precision. Let it be well understood that Mallarmé had taken care to introduce into the encryption of the Number a quality of unforeseeability that implies that one can discover its existence only by chance. For no knowledge of the poet’s work, no matter how thorough, would suffice to discover that the Coup de dés is organized around a count, and in particular the count of its words…” (117) Not labor but speculation alone presides over the unveiling of the number, for chance is the absolute quality of the great outdoors.

Rituals that bind the worlds need a sacrifice, and here Meillassoux does not diverge from this ancient logic. “Mallarmé accepted the possible destruction of the meaning of his labor upon the alter of a Chance that represented, for him, the equivalent of Destiny.” (122) The bottle and its message may not wash ashore anywhere. There is no esoteric knowledge in the poem, no particular difficulty. There is only an indeterminate code, “that infinite capacity to have held within oneself all options at once.” (142) There is only a nihilist passion to communicate across time an impossible number.

The exploit of A Throw of Dice is not to abolish chance – which after all might be the controlling mission of any doctrine of the sacred – but to be chance. “The only way to escape contingency would have been to have become just as eternal and infinite as the latter. But how? How to be, oneself, all the options of the throw.” (128)

Chance is real, determinate and eternal. That is what the poem communicates in its very form. Chance has sovereignty over the events of our world, its results are always specific and concrete. Meillassoux: “… at stake in the Coup de dés is the diffusion of the divine, and therefore the real presence of a real drama, a drama supporting an effective infinitization.” ( 132) The Master’s hesitation, like Hamlet’s is at once real and fictional. The character hesitates; the work is itself also a hesitation. A real decision is combined with the “ideal eternity of fictional characters.” (137)

The core of A Throw of Dice is something sacred, but a sacred without the old God of law and reason, but rather a “treading water that would not be an extinguishing, but the pulsation of the eternal – a hesitation of being.” (141) Both real and ideal, historical and fictional, A Throw of Dice is a portal between two worlds at once: “this singular poet did indeed participate in the infinite through the fusion within him, fluctuating and unstable, of the carnal-historic determined being and the signatory being of the Coup de dés.” (148)

With this poem, Mallarmé throws himself into the infinite. “The poet thus launched his ‘proper name’ in the Coup de dés, so as to create beyond his death an infinite carrying his patronymic.” (149) There is one message of the shipwreck, just as there is one message of the crucifixion. The poet and the poem are singular in their instantiation of the infinite. Mallarmé with this poem is, all at once, the trustee of the divine.

Meillassoux: “The Coup de dés does indeed intend to break in two the history of the world: like a zero-event on the basis of which every calendar must be recalculated – like a christic birth – it is the absolute rupture of a before and an after, of a unique, non-reproducible wager, without precursor or successor, of which Mallarmé is the ‘unique Name.’” (166) Mallarmé and Meillassoux are like the God Builders Gorky and Lunacharsky from whom Bogdanov parted company, only their new God is not the proletariat but the speculator.

The poet is reborn as the Siren, who appears and disappears at once, leaving the question: did infinity open, or not? Was the constellation and its count revealed or not? For a long time, until Meillassoux’s book actually, it did not. Meillassoux: “modernity triumphed and we did not know it.” (221) The Number and the Siren is like a new testament which reveals the old – A Throw of Dice – to be an allegory of a book to come which will reveal not a hermeneutic key but its encrypted code.

Mallarmé’s triumph over the modern condition, the death of God, is a sacrifice to three new goals: the messianic without Christ; religion without dogma; emancipation without salvation. For Meillassoux, one – and only one – message in a bottle comes to us from modernity, after the wreck of its grand narratives, from that epoch and its disenchantments, even those now forgotten. Here alone stands “a christic crystallization of Chance” and an “intimate revolution of the subject.” (222)

What remains constant between the christic and the modern is the form of the relation between worlds. A sacrifice is made, and the act itself takes the form of a figuring of the infinite, be it of God or nothingness. The communication with a great outdoors by a singular actor – Christ or Mallarmé – anchors the possibility of living after in its grace. The living after still requires a trustee who speaks of and for the portal between worlds. What does not happen is a closing of the portal.

To close the portal to another world – that might be another version of the modern. For Mallarmé, without God there is only contingency, but the contingent itself can be raised to the level of the infinite. But there might be another path. Without God there is no longer an infinite, but there is not just contingency, either. There is détournement, that inhuman, unconscious working of language itself on itself, via an apparatus of labor and technology.

In Mallarmé’s case, we could read A Throw of Dice also as détournement: of sea lore, of Poe, of Hamlet, and most interestingly of the language of the bourgeois newspaper. In One Way Street, Walter Benjamin finds in Mallarmé’s Coup de dés the incorporation of the graphic tensions of the advertisement in the printed page. It is a poem of its time in a prosaic sense as well. As with correlationism, so too with poetic language, the path not taken in Meillassoux is to think the apparatus.

The Data and the Siren: Quentin Meillassoux has, over two extraordinary books, restored the honor of the rational absolute and the poetic infinite. He frees the former from metaphysical dogma, he frees the later from a restrictively Christian messianism. Of the three goals he attributes to Mallarmé, there is clear progress on two of them, but perhaps not on a third: politics without salvation. What is given license instead is a kind of salvation inverted. A politics of reconciliation with a contingent nothingness.

The path not taken, in the case of both books, is in a certain sense a Marxist one. Meillassoux acknowledges the significance of Marx for the modern condition, in a phrase that in his terms can only be a compliment. Marx is “he who we have never known how to classify.” (221) Certainly one could read After Finitude as offering a proof of materialism, of a great outdoors, rather than merely taking it as a given. But it comes at the price of defining a mathematical real innocent of observation and measurement, and hence at best congruent with the natural sciences but not of it.

Perhaps what is unclassifiable in Marx stems not from his philosophy, but from his practice. What is central is not his materialism, but what Bogdanov calls the labor point of view. That point of view has an inhuman quality. Labor is not reducible to the individual thinking subject. It is mingled with the machine in the apparatus. Labor, both scientific and industrial, is what is real in Marx and Bogdanov. Another kind of labor, poetical labor, the production of language out of language, is what is real in Lautréamont, but also in Platonov.

In both cases is labor is not reducible to its living, subjective element, but is an apparatus, an alloy of human and machine. By putting Marx via Bogdanov and Lautréamont via Platonov together we find a path marked by neither the correlation nor the absolute, and at a distance also from certain messianic themes revived – none too legitimately – in the name of Marx in our time.

Meillassoux delimits his claim for Mallarmé to an “intimate revolution” of the subject. In an interview with Graham Harman, Meillassoux has observed, and wisely, that: “This partition of tasks (individual messianism, political finitude) allows us to avoid the totalitarian temptation of collective action. We can efficiently expel the eschatological desire from politics only by allowing this desire to unfold openly in another sphere of existence (such as private life or philosophy).”

We may build Gods again, but private ones. But there’s a trade off. Philosophy may have access to the absolute again, or be a safe haven for the desire for the absolute, but at the price of taking philosophy away from the sciences, or indeed the social sciences, and away from the labor point of view in general.

One has to ask also about why Meillassoux’s thought might be appearing at this particular conjuncture. To what desire, or if not desire, anxiety, does this speculative realism appeal? Here is a hint from the same interview: “We can disappear as a species, as can all other life on earth; there will always be contingent beings whether we exist or not. We thus obtain the first postulate of all materialism (but in a form that is demonstrated rather than just posited).”

It is as if a speculative, or rather a contemplative, realism appeared on the scene so that philosophy can guarantee the continued existence of the world after us. It’s a variant on what E. P. Thompson called exterminism. It is as if there was a giving up, in advance, on the increasingly difficult challenge of shoring up the apparatus upon which thought depends.

Rather than retreat toward a human world of art, the retreat is rather one that looks like an advance, into the great outdoors, but one that is equally contemplative, aesthetic, and outside the labor point of view. It leaps over the inhuman of the apparatus, even over the nonhuman that the apparatus of science records, straight into the absolute.

By what inhuman combination of labor and apparatus does a nonhuman world become sensible and measurable to a human one? That would be the question that Bogdanov’s empirio-monism once put before us. By what collective labor on language in its mediated forms does the nonrational poetics on which thought feeds come to us? That would be the question once posed by Platonov’s particular articulation of détournement. Nothing guarantees an outside either to thought or language. Neither thought or language can be the critical limit to what is knowable, as neither is external to the active process of encountering the world.

Let’s conclude with a particular example of what Meillassoux in After Finitude calls an arche-fossil, if of a rather different kind. Let’s consider not cosmology, but climate science, which gives us evidence of a very pertinent kind of collapse. Climate science tells us of past events, such as the climate of the Hadean eon, but also of a future one, the imminent climate of the Anthropocene Era.

Climate science abstracts from the fetishism of particular, contingent actions on a certain localized scale, that of the biosphere, to show us also a future event that has already occurred. The already transpired rise – among other gases – of atmospheric carbon (and methane) has already raised global temperatures in the future. Climate science raises the alarm about an event that unfolds in slow motion all around us, but beyond the scale and memory of human thought or perception. It too is a thing which in its full wonder is outside the correlationist circle.

Climate science knows nothing of the absolute. It is an apparatus. Indeed, Paul Edwards, one of the leading histories of it is called A Vast Machine. It has three elements: predicting the weather, modeling the climate, and the physics of how both weather and climate work. It took many decades to bring all three together. Gathering timely weather data from disparate locations and altitudes takes a huge, global infrastructure. Computing that data with an accurate model of the physics takes a vast amount of computational power. Both data communication and computation friction impeded the study of climate until the late twentieth century. At the base of our contemporary knowledge of climate, and climate change, is the evolution, from system to network to webs, of a global climate knowledge infrastructure, requiring coordinated global labors.

Climate science is our Napoleon at Jena, not the world spirit on horseback, but the biospheric totality via comsat. If there is a short list of things calling us to a timely rather than a hesitant thought, then surely it is on that list. But philosophy has turned away from such things. It grew bored with the double binds of the subject, but rather than lift its gaze toward this world, it conjured up another – the world of the absolute object.

A contemplative realism provides a window through which to observe the beauty of a world that actually is collapsing, and the solace of knowing that the world will go on, even if the human does not. Philosophy has found a spectacle outside of history once again, while the sirens go off all around us, calling us to put out fires both conceptual and real.

It may well be said that I have not done Meillassoux justice, that I have not explicated his thought to the end. This is indeed the case. I have elaborated the parallel arguments of two of his books only to the point where the intersect another line of thought. We follow the argument for the absolute only to the point where it comes upon the argument of the apparatus. My aim has not been to refute Meillassoux – something for which in any case I would never claim the authority – but simply to situate his project by reference to another.

This other theory – that of the apparatus – might not even be philosophy. Yet it may have a few modest merits. It begins and ends with that mingling of labor and technology that characterize the times. It hews close to the problems that such an apparatus detects as the problems of the moment – such as climate change. It makes no claim to be the trustee of a portal between this world and another. It makes no claim that either it, or its subject, is a rare event.

Détournement is an ever present and ongoing practice, a poetics of the apparatus, a stockpile of possible, ready made substitutions, the other side of its inhuman measuring and calculating. This other theory is merely a low theory. It has no lofty ambitions. It seeks only to equip everyday life with the tools for its own sustenance and elaboration. It is a molecular red theory, of living iron and blood corpuscles. It has no interest in rendering the contemplative spectacle absolute and eternal. It has an interest only in dispensing with the spectacle entirely. In this it does not hesitate.

McKenzie Wark

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