hero complex.

Who Are You Not To Be Great?

on video games, mythology, and greatness.

Video games today are no longer part of the entertainment industry. They’re a new industry, yet one as old as history—the Myth Industry. Games are about greatness. In games, we can become world-saving heroes. In fact, it’s assumed that we will be. It is the very structure of games to place each player into the role of the central hero in myth.

“Who are you not to be great?”

“You,” continues the dapper Malcolm McDowell look-alike narrator from a recent Sony’s PlayStation commercial. “With the imagination of a brilliant child and the powers of an ancient god.” He saunters casually from the wreckage of a car crash onto the streets of a city mid-apocalypse. By now, global ruin should be more familiar to gamers than a snow level or a lava temple. “Who are you to be ordinary?”

What is this? I thought, seeing the commercial for the first time last week at work (I produce trailers for video games). I know this. My mind raced back to elementary school and the image of Apollo on the cover of d’Aulaires’ book of Greek mythology. I remember pouring over those simple colored-pencil drawings of gods and goddesses as if they were windows into a lush fantasy world.

Listening to my purple-suited host, that same feeling arose again. Which shouldn’t have been the case. This is a modern technology ad. I mean, he’s talking about video games, but his language feels timeless. It felt as if the contemporary world of interactive entertainment was folding itself onto something ageless. Such a clash of worlds felt disruptive. And what does he mean, comparing me to both a child and a god? What is he invoking?

“Who are you to be anonymous? You, whose name should be spoken in reverent tones, or in terrified whispers.”

PlayStation guy speaks of sacred things. But why do they feel familiar? As if his words describe Theseus killing the Minotaur or Icarus flying too close to the sun? Maybe, it’s because he taps into feelings as old as my childhood memories. Those iconic images we blindly carry like a shared dream, like the shapes our fathers once drew in the night sky. I know this, I thought.

Theseus and the Minotaur

Theseus and the Minotaur

This is the language of myth. And we are its heroes.

But what’s a hero? Let me take a step back and introduce you to Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, scholar of world mythology and all around spiritual badass. Some of you may have heard of him. Campbell doesn’t just write about ancient heroes, but is a champion of each individual’s personal journey. He sees the potential all humans have, within themselves, to become heroes.

He writes, “The hero is symbolical of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only waiting to be known and rendered into life” (31). Don’t we all wear the triforce of courage? Haven’t we all fought necromorphs? According to Campbell, each of us, deep inside, carries a certain productive force capable of renewing the entire world, that you and I can change things for the better.

We’re all familiar with the hero’s journey. It’s in everything from the Bible to Star Wars. And it begins with an ordinary human just like you.

You live in a small village with common concerns, minding your own business. Suddenly something happens and adventure calls. You are met by a guardian of the threshold, whom you must defeat or join to proceed. Leaving the familiar far behind, you journey into the great unknown.

ObiWan as Luke's threshold guardian.

ObiWan as Luke’s threshold guardian.

You explore a new world filled with strange forces, some malicious, some helpful. At the zenith of your trials you face the ultimate villain, requiring you to tap into the deepest reservoirs of your strength. You win the battle and become the hero. Only then can you re-cross the threshold and bring what you’ve learned back to your village. New yourself, you bring newness to the old world, like spring does to winter, renewing all things.

“Who are you to be afraid?”

All adventures must have a beginning. Traversing the known to the unknown requires you to cross an important threshold: fear. Doing this takes both personal courage and a little help from your friends.

The mythological trope of the “threshold guardian” traces its course through ancient myth and modern games alike. In the words of Campbell, this guardian represents “the benign, protecting power of destiny” (59). These figures stand at the horizon of life, with hand outstretched, inviting us to achieve something greater.

In Dante’s “Inferno,” it’s the poet Virgil who waits at the entrance to hell and acts as Dante’s guide through the underworld, eventually leading him to the gates of heaven. The same can be said about Obi-Wan. He leads Luke from his small life on Tatooine to a galaxy-wide adventure. In Bioshock Infinite, the Lutece twins are both the guardians to Columbia and the subtle guides of Booker’s destiny. In Dead Space, Isaac Clarke is spurred on by his dead wife, haunting him and driving him in equal measure. And for Link, there is always Navi.

The Lutece Twins as the liminal characters of destiny.

The Lutece Twins as the liminal characters of destiny.

These threshold guardians are liminal characters—they guide us through our fear, transitioning us from who we were to who we will become. They introduce us to new game mechanics and lead us, both the player and the character, through beautiful and terrifying new worlds. They are the mentors of our fate. Whether our teachers in real life or characters from fiction, these guardians stem from a vast mythological tradition, leading us, the gamer, into the future.

“Who are you to be a slave to the past?”

Whether we think of ourselves as Commander Shepherd or Booker DeWitt, we carry the archetypes for world-changing greatness within each of us. We have our own threshold guardians who have given us the knowledge and the tools to press forward into the unknown.

We’ve fought our own boss battles, whether we experienced it like Perseus from classical myth, cutting the head off Medusa, or imagined it like Mario, jumping three times on Bowser’s head. These images have been inherited by time, passed down from story to story, and gathered in our psyches as a vast collective unconscious.

Medusa as Perseus' boss battle.

Medusa as Perseus’ boss battle.

Yet, instead of sitting back and listening to heroic stories around a campfire, dreaming of greatness, video games let us become the hero of myth and experience this greatness ourselves. Unlike, say, the novel or cinema, games are in a unique position to deliver an immersive experience. In games, we make the choices. In games, we are directly responsible. No longer mere empathy, we have become heroes ourselves.

This element of personal experience is essential. Our lives are steeped in personal anxieties and hopes, all stemming from our own personal journeys. Myths are archetypal for this exact reason—they follow the emotional course of a universal human cycle: we are children, we have parents, we rebel, we grow up, we become ourselves, we merge with a partner, our parents die, we have children of our own, they rebel, they grow up, and then, someday, we die.

To realize the profound impact stories have on our lives helps us become aware of our own place in the human cycle. I often feel like Commander Shepard because life is only surmountable when those I trust surround me. We can’t save the world alone. I feel like Link because I’ve got a lot to learn before I’m ready to love. Saving the princess from Gannon is a battle with personal demons. I feel like Ezio because family drama often plays its course across time like a war between Templars and Assassins. I can only hope I’m as charming in the process. And I feel like Booker DeWitt because the fight to understand our place in the world often comes in the form of earth-shattering realizations. To understand myth, in this way, is to know one’s self. The battle to become who we are is a battle for our lives.

Mass Effect: a little help from our friends.

Mass Effect: a little help from our friends.

And we are not alone. Campbell writes, “The heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero-path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world” (18).

The titan Prometheus steals the gift of fire from the gods not for himself, but for all of humanity. The Buddha does not die after reaching nirvana, but returns to the plane of man to teach a new way of being. Commander Shepherd, in one possible ending, sacrifices himself so that man and machine may merge, creating a brave new world. After the final battle is over, and the bosses have been defeated, the transformations we’ve discovered must be shared. This is the purpose of both myth and games: personal experience for the sake of collective progress.

Because that’s all that the hero’s journey is, in the end—an inward journey of spiritual growth. Our role as humans becomes literalized in video games: our anxieties become zombies, our courage becomes magic, and our lives become a world that needs to be saved. Video games give us the physical space to live out these internal realities, and the opportunity to do it ourselves. Changing our own lives and becoming who we are can feel as huge as changing the entire world.

“Who are you to deny greatness?”

…our hero asks while unbuttoning his suit jacket, now flanked by a band of misfits. “If you would deny it to yourself, you would deny it to the entire world.” He emerges onto a vast battlefield full of dragons and spaceships. With a yell, our hero raises his arms in fiero, the universal sign of triumph over adversity.

“And we will not be denied.”

This article was originally written for and published on Kotaku.
Original post can be found here.
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flesh as limit-experience.

Being & Death
Lecture: “Flesh as Limit-Experience”
March 1968

I: PURE PRESENCE

cai turrell / BLUE COLOR FIELD

SEBASTIAN HEIM: You stand amid the void. Directly in the center, if such a term can even make sense. Without difference, place is meaningless. Distance recedes infinitely in all directions. The room is edgeless, without shadow or crease. But there is color. You bask in a perfectly deep blue. This pure hue saturates your vision. It is absolutely complete, undifferentiated and uniform, like an endless ocean.

Then it appears to change. The color drains out like a storm. Grayscale. What is this? The signals in your eyes are malfunctioning. You’re losing your vision. Was it ever, truly cerulean, or was it only an azure dream hallucinated in the blackness of space? Have you gone blind? You look down. There are your hands, as before, painted in a gentle, cobalt light. You can see your feet on some sort of ground, or maybe floating above. Color returns, only to fade, and then return again.

This is the Ganzfeld effect. Your sensory apparatus is being starved of difference. This means: everything in a uniform field of color melts together over time. Like the loss of your ganglion cells, you enter a state of absolute indistinction, a state where everything becomes inconsistent multiplicity. Infinite connection. It’s a deathless death, incomprehensible and formless. This room has changed into an endless expanse of space, present before us.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The universe is open. Color is an outwards movement. Space is a field of light. Here, in the midst of Cai Turrell’s installation, vision becomes void.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: We are witnessing, through illusion, the state of existence as it was “before birth.” And this is where our project shall begin. As we can see, Turrell’s “Color Field” represents the pure presence of Being, the origin without beginning, the unknowable fullness of the void.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The world is always already there before reflection begins – as an inalienable presence. Everything exists; the world is given to us through intentionality. The very fact that our bodies are in a world and our perceptions are directed toward that world constitutes the world as “already there,” existing in pure presence, even before our cognition sets us in relation to it through reflection. This presence means that the world also sees us – we exist in the visible.

II: THE VISIBLE

jack wallace / FACEPLATE

SEBASTIAN HEIM: “Intentionality.” Let me describe what this means: we are beings within a world. Intentionality, then, is our irreducible ontological relation with this world. In other words, our consciousness comes into contact with something. Our bodies and our sensory organs prove this fact – experience has an “aboutness.” Every time we love, we love something; when we see, we see something.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Phenomenology, as a discipline, is the structural study of consciousness and its subjective experience. “Aboutness” is the perfect term for it. There is a materiality to phenomenology. It is through these “things” that we hope to grasp “Things.” Therefore, in regards to our project, we must posit a return to “the things themselves.” The very fact that we see, that we are part of the visible, means we already come into contact with these things.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: We see them and are seen by them. We’re part of the visible realm, which lies open before us. The fact of our perception is the actuality of the world. As beings within the visible, we are situated within a materially accessible universe of things. Simply put: we exist in the open.

Existence within the visible is exemplified by Jack Wallace’s “Faceplate” series. The artist, covered in white clay, photographs himself in almost identical poses in multiple locations throughout the Sun. The ashen clay on his skin calls back to primitive purity rituals. It undifferentiates his body, rendering him sculpturally primordial. The changing locations represent the vastness of the open. In each panel the figure looks through a thin glass “faceplate,” a mask of sorts. This mask embodies the fact of visibility. The seer sees, and is seen.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: When I perceive, I belong to the world as a whole. The faceplate says, “I am the window. Past, present, and future all merge before me.” This is the nature of light. Within the visible, I can recover a pre-personal form of existence. Like we saw earlier in Turrell’s “Color Field.” Pure presence surrounds us. Here, I can communicate with a world more ancient than thought. One in which all beings come together and unite with one another.

Following from this, Wallace’s work asks the viewer a question: “What, ultimately, am I?” The answer: “I am a field. I am part of the open; I belong to the open. I belong to the entire world.”

To “be conscious” is here nothing but “to belong to.”

SEBASTIAN HEIM: This notion of “belonging” is wildly important to our conception of the visible. As Badiou so eloquently stated in his set theory lecture, “To exist as a multiple is always to belong to a multiplicity. To exist is to be an element of.” Belonging is thus the only ontological verb of the visible. Consciousness is a vast intertwining. Existence belongs to the open.

However, this pure state of belonging never lasts – it is immediately broken by self-conscious reflection. The visible is inherently doubled, and then split by our knowing gaze.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: As soon as I see, it is necessary that the vision be doubled with a complementary vision or with another vision: myself seen from without, such as another would see me. Suddenly, I exist in a mirror. My reflection becomes my identity. And through that mirror I am able to articulate everything else that is not “me.”

Belonging then recedes into lack.

III: INTO THE LACK

SEBASTIAN HEIM: The mirror stage, as we’ve previously discussed, can be described as, “the process of becoming self-aware within the visible.” It signifies our entrance into language, and into the representational field as a whole. The mirror stage, if you remember, constructs our identities as coherent and isolated individuals by creating a subject/object split – this is the constitution of the subject as such. When an individual becomes an “I,” everything else becomes a “you.” This gesture is violently truncating, a cutting off of the world. But at what cost?

By achieving an identity, we lose the world. The subject is then marked by loss. We get separated from the visible, and the open, so to speak, closes. This split, like a stillbirth, sits in our hearts as irreconcilable lack.

This is the origin of alone.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Lack resides here, within the self-awareness of the subject. “We see ourselves seeing.” The subject constructs his or her self-image into an abstraction, as if in a mirror, in order to self-perceive the same way in which the other perceives. This goes to say – by becoming aware of the visible, we immediately separate ourselves from it. The world then becomes “an object” or “the other.”

This split walks hand in hand with our entrance into language. The subject/object divide, as Sebastian pointed out, is analogous to the separation of the pronoun “I” from all of the “you’s.” And this does something psychologically. Suddenly there are terms that can be used in a sentence. Objects that can be used as tools. We become relational within the visible. “Subjects” that can interact with “separate” others.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: The important thing to note here is that, not only does this split create a subject/object binary and separate the world from us, but also in doing so, it makes the world usable, as if it is there for us. Not only do we “use,” but we also “use up.” Nature becomes a mere stockpile of resources to be exhausted.

This does something tragic. Our “belonging” to the world becomes obscured. The lack widens into a ravenous sink. The subject is then placed in a technological stance toward the world.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Our use of the word “technology” should be defined. Here, it connotes a utilitarian vision. One that looks to use the world and other people as if they were tools, pieces of technology for its own ends. This is done in hopes to “re-fill” the hole in our psyches. As we have seen, when language separates us from the pure presence of the open, the resulting lack begins to gnaw at our psyches for more. Always wanting more.

This is a blind form of violence, one that is unaware of the visible, egotistically centered around the image of the subject alone. Therefore, the “technological stance,” as it stems from lack, is a desirous, destructive force.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: You mention desire. Here, the mathemes of Lacan, and the way in which they’re used in art, can help us illustrate this psychological structure. Let’s go on a tangent for a moment and explore some drawings that might illuminate the way in which the technological stance operates. We’ll start with a complete rectangle.

This shape represents the “field of existence.” Like Turrell’s installation, this matheme stands for pure presence. This complete form is open and fully visible. Life, as it is pre-birth. Then, narratively, the mirror stage occurs. With the introduction of language, a piece of this shape must be removed and separated out as “other,” as “you.”

This is the subject/object split. A section of the “totality” has been cut from its core to make an “outside.” Thus, on the left we have human life, which is shown as a shape with a missing center. And on the right we have the missing piece, the little, invisible object that structures identity via negative difference. As long as we are alive, that section of Being is gone, inaccessible to us. This removed piece thus becomes the symbol of our lack – the thing we strive for in life, the only thing that can “fill our emptiness.”

This is where desire comes in. Now that the “object” is gone, let’s focus on the left diagram, the image of life built around lack. At the outset, we have two ways to physiologically deal with lack. First, we can try to reclaim what was lost in hopes of becoming full again. In order to do this we must stretch a thin projection screen over the gaping hole in our heart. And then upon that screen we will project our wildest desires.

For example: why is it that a man thinks, “If I only get this job, or this car, or this woman, I will finally be complete?” And then, when he finally gets what he wanted, he realizes that he’s just as empty as before? This is because these “others” were only ever projections upon the desire-screen of lack. When he gets these “things” they fade away, revealing his gaping lack once more. Only the abyss remains.

rachel stern / LANDBODY

This notion of desire as projection screen is illustrated by the work of Rachel Stern, who uses this rectangle-within-rectangle structure to make graphical video installations.

In this piece, Stern deals with the contextual separation of the human body from the earth. Desire, quite literally, is a screen on which video of skin is projected. Other works, like Cindy Torres’ “Evental Burn” and “Evental Field” deal with this matheme more directly. Using explosions of gunpowder, as in “Evental Burn,” she sears mathematical structures onto human flesh, enacting the narrative of how the human body is always already inscribed in and by language. “Evental Field” depicts the lack not as a screen or a hole, but rather as a tumultuous abyss of dark movement.

cindy torres / EVENTAL FIELD (RED)

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The drive must also be mentioned. The technological subject, as you said earlier, has two ways of dealing with lack. On the one hand, the subject can project across its surface, as does desire; or, on the other hand, the subject can simply circulate around lack’s gravitational field, as does the drive.

Drive is a complicated idea to grasp. It is never “for” something, but should rather be thought of as an abstract “orbit” around lack. Drive is structured like work, for instance, or like weightlifting. Artists who deal with the drive often use the language of athleticism to highlight this aim-based relationship. The same way in which a bodybuilder “reps” weights, the drive is an endless repetition of the structure of lack. This form of work is pure aim, never going for a goal or an endgame.

matthew björn / SYMBOLIC WEIGHTS

Hypertrophic development is a form of drive – building muscle through work. Matthew Björn’s “Restraint” series, for instance, depicts the production of art operating against systems of resistance. His pink wax weight sculptures blur the line between exercise machinery and bodily flesh. In an athletic performance done here in the library, entitled “climbSHAFT,” Björn scales the reading room walls like a rock climber leaving trails of wax “drawings” behind. All of his orifices are filled with equipment – he must take ice-climbing spikes from his anus to continue ascending. Thus, like a short-circuit, the artist’s “climbSHAFT” performance enacts the dream of a self-contained system of meaning production – pure drive.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: But it’s only ever a dream. Innocence has been lost. From the technological stance, it seems, the subject’s options for “completion” are limited. Must we always “deal with” the lack, never to truly be full again? How can we break the barrier that separates us from the world? Is there no way out for the individual?

Here, a grim thought crosses the artist’s mind – is death the only escape? If language and identity are the root causes of the subject/object split, then is an exit from this system the only way to transcend its binary? How can one “exit” identity anyways? And is death the only way to negate difference? The only way to become “complete” again, to bridge the lack and return to pure presence?

IV: THE PROJECT OF THE “/”

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Death haunts us at every turn. With ravenous hearts, we desire so much. And drive can only take us in circles. Every linguistic gesture we make is a trap. Each is a cell that ensnares us within identity; every word we speak reifies our separation. With tears in our eyes, we stare lack in its absent face. We are alone. Is there no way out? Is the rapturous call of death our only answer? Perhaps not.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: When we’re so ingrained in a system, like ideology, sometimes it’s near impossible to see a way out. Things are at their worst when every one of our options seems pre-chosen. When death seems like the only answer, as it did for everyone in 1939. Instead, it requires a radically new pair of eyes to see outside of the given structure entirely. In order to create a new world, what we need is a new vision.

The technological subject’s primary outlook was wrong – one mustn’t need to “transcend” the subject/object binary in order to bridge lack. That type of vision is blindly dualistic. The notion of “transcendence” itself even repeats the structure of separation. Perhaps we are “there” already? Perhaps we’ve been calling one thing by two different names all along? Separation, it seems, being a trick of language, is only ever a trick played on Being. The void, perhaps, has always been full.

There is a short gedankenexperiment that can help explicate this non-dualism. Picture a man locked in a room – this is his entire world. All he has to accompany him are two video screens, one in the left corner and one in the right. Each screen has a live video feed of a fish. One fish is pointed to the left, and the other straight ahead. When one fish turns ninety degrees, so does the other. When one fish turns up, so does the other. There seems to be communication between them, the man thinks. They seem to be dancing in a structured pattern.

Our man is a scientist. He wants to discover the true nature of these fish. So he begins to study them. Their vertical movement is perfectly mirrored. Their horizontal movement is coordinated, but offset by ninety degrees. When Lefty points left, Righty points straight ahead. The question becomes – how are these two fish communicating?  Are Lefty/Righty sending signals back and forth? If so, what type of signal, since their communication seems instantaneous, like entangled particles? Are they sending messages faster than the speed of light? Our scientist gets excited. He thinks he can use the Lefty/Righty binary to prove light speed communication.

Then a door opens on the far wall. The man walks through the passage. There, in an annexed room, he sees a single fish tank. There is a videocamera on the front glass wall of the tank, and another camera on the left glass wall. Inside the tank there is only one fish. Suddenly, everything becomes clear. Our scientist built an entire field of knowledge around the Lefty/Righty split, yet, all the while, he was only viewing one fish from two different perspectives. There weren’t “two” things at all. Just one thing seen from two views.

The subject/object split is no different. Language is the video screens that create difference out of thin air. The single fish is the “body” of existence. Thus, the dualism of the subject/object split must also exist in something. There must be a “body” present on which these terms are inscribed, like the skin in Torres’ “Evental Burn.” What is this grammatical mark of Being? Where can we find it? We’ve spoken of “subjects” and we’ve spoken of “objects,” but we have not yet explored the “/” itself. Perhaps it is at the “/” where we shall find our single fish.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: The phenomenological project can be seen as the passage through lack, not a bypassing of the subject/object split, but rather its very deconstruction, by existing on the “/” – on the thin membrane that is “both and yet neither.”

Our bodies are that body. Our immanence has always been a constant transcendence. So let’s focus our vision there – the body. Death is an exit only if we consider life and death to be separate states. Perhaps there is a deathless death? Perhaps we have always lived without being alive? Perhaps there has never been a life/death split at all, like Sebastian’s fish?

Such a radical thought clarifies our vision – we must exist on the “/,” at that limit, on the very threshold itself.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: From an artistic standpoint, the materiality of the body comes to represent this “suspended” position, this state between states.

jack wallace / ASCENT

Jack Wallace’s “ascent” performance, constructed in a barn within a warehouse in the Shade, mythologizes the compressed relationship the body has with the spirit. Here, we see the character of “The Wanderer” moving freely between states of immanence and transcendence, ascending and descending at will. He is an abyssal explorer, compressing depths and heights into one. This pliability has a material existence – the artist’s body is the medium (“medium” having both meanings: one as the artist’s material, and two as the psychic vessel through which the dead communicate with the living).

In this performance, the artist’s body is literally suspended between states, a gesture which becomes a metaphor for the superposition of art, the potentiality of the “/” that is “both and yet neither.”

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Returning to our rectangular diagram, we begin to see that the “/” is represented by the lines themselves, by the very borders of our drawing. When speaking of edges, the center becomes no different than the outside. A line is a line is a line. Both are limits to their respective frontiers.

We have been so focused on the hole in the center that we’ve missed the edge that surrounds our diagram. This line is not of the sphere of “subject,” of life, nor is it of the sphere of “other,” of death and the void. The “/” is the undifferentiated state between these two modes of existence. We mustn’t speak of sides. Dualism is illusory, like the fish. We must focus our new vision on this membrane itself, on the intertwining of bodies.

Henceforth, as the parts of my body together comprise a system, so my body and the other person’s are one whole, two sides of one and the same phenomenon, and the anonymous existence of which my body is the ever-renewed trace henceforth inhabits both bodies simultaneously.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: When you use the expression “two sides of one and the same phenomenon” I think immediately of de Saussure’s structural linguistics. He claims that thoughts and sounds don’t exist separately, but are rather two sides of the same sheet of paper. In his own words, “Neither are thoughts given material form nor are sounds transformed into mental entities; the somewhat mysterious fact is rather that ‘thought-sound’ implies division, and that language works out its units while taking shape between two shapeless masses.”

Language, therefore, is not a naming process, but rather thought and speech are two sides of a piece of paper. By making a cut in one side, we also make a cut in the other. Thus, if language is constituted only by these “cuts” of difference through this sheet of paper, then the “/” we speak of now must be the paper itself.

This membrane, this “/,” must be a radical substance – one of paradoxical indistinction, one that exists outside the structure of difference altogether. This “/” must be a gesture of pure belonging, like the visible – both the “image maker and the image itself,” such as Carolee Schneemann so revolutionarily defined the feminist body in art.

carolee schneemann / EYE BODY: 36 TRANSFORMATIVE ACTIONS

“Eye Body: 36 Transformative Actions” reclaims as feminist the body-as-brush aesthetic forged by Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries,” Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, and Kazuo Shiraga’s “Challenging Mud” performance sculptures, and turns the artist’s body into an indistinct substance that is both brush and canvas, and yet neither. The feminist body, here, is thus transformed into a new visual territory, something Schneemann calls “vulvic space.” This is the serpent space, like werewolf, which can traverse both the visible and the invisible indiscriminately. The cave of the vagina becomes the symbol for “interior knowledge,” the unification of spirit and flesh.

Like Shigeko Kubota’s “Vagina Painting,” Schneemann’s naked body takes the terms “paintbrush” and “canvas” and exchanges them. Yet, somehow in the switch, they become one and the same, indistinguishable from one another. “Both, and yet neither.”

This is a radical deconstruction of the composition of being. Artists such as Schneemann have found the void’s thread and are pulling it free. This “/” is the umbilical cord itself. When loosed, everything unravels. The terms in the binary, such as subject/object or artist/canvas, switch chiasmically. Each contradictory term paradoxically combines into a new multiplicity. This chiasmic “vulvic space” is the place of superposition.

V: CHIASM

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Let me briefly unpack the conceptual importance of the term “chiasm.” It starts with the Greek letter “Chi,” denoted by the symbol “X.” The term “chiasmus” means, quite literally, “to shape like the letter X.” Now, what does that mean?

Let’s look literally at the shape of the letter “X.” We have two upward facing lines. An “A” point on the left and a “B” point on the right. These two lines slope down toward each other, cross in the middle, and then switch places at the bottom. Now we have “B” on the left and “A” on the right. Used as a literary device, a “chiasmic structure” follows this reversal pattern to emphasize a point. For instance, “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.” Here, we see a literal changing of position between our two terms in order to underline a drastic transformation in our narrative. This formal structure can be seen in literature all throughout history.

However, our interest here isn’t in the end result. Such a “switching of terms” can only repeat the dualistic structure we’re trying to overcome. Rather, the meaning we seek lies at the heart of the matter. There, at the very center of the “X,” we can see a single position emerge – the point of intersection between the “A” line and the “B” line. Here, at this singular node, there is no discernable difference between the two lines. For an instant they are one and the same. The switch has been frozen in time, and the two, opposite terms exist in pure superposition.

Such a non-dualistic understanding is immeasurably valuable for our phenomenological project. This state of chiasm is a “state between states,” a place of infinite potentiality where every arrangement of terms occurs simultaneously. The center of the “X” is, quite literally, “both and yet neither,” an expression we’ve been saying a lot recently. Why? Because this structure appears everywhere.

There is an “optic chiasm” in the human brain, for instance. Right below the hypothalamus, the optic nerves from either eye cross to opposite sides of the brain, combining in the middle to form an accurate image of the visible world. This crossing is essential to binocular vision. Chiasm, then, as both the rhetorical “inversion of phrases” and as the physiological “intertwining of optic nerves,” applies directly to the human body’s access to the open. Our body-world relation, we could say, is permanently, mutually intertwined. There is no “subject/object” split. By means of chiasm, there is only “/.”

Which is to say, by a sort of chiasm, we become the others and we become world.

matthew björn / CREMASTER CHIASMUS

SEBASTIAN HEIM: The mythological art narratives of Matthew Björn speak directly to the potentiality inherent in the chiasmic structure. His films and sculptures in the “Cremaster Series” deal with sexual differentiation in a similar way. Women have two ovaries, both of which extend upward into their bodies like the top of an “X.” Men have two testicles, both of which extend downward out of their bodies like the bottom of an “X.”

In the first few weeks of every human being’s life, when we were fetuses, that is, we existed somewhere between these two positions, at the very center of the “X.” We were sexually undifferentiated. It takes seven weeks before duality is forced upon the body. Until then, we have two indistinct gonads. They could go up and make us female, or they could go down and make us male.

During those first weeks, when they’re neither up nor down, when they’re chiasmically at the center of the “X,” the human body exists in a biological state of sexual undifferentiation, a state of pure potentiality. These glorious weeks can be seen as the initial “Dionysian” moments of the human body. During this time, the human body exists in a state of sexual superposition. Our flesh, in this instance, is universal.

VI: FLESH

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Chiasmic intertwining exists, as we have shown, and, as we shall see, it has a material existence upon the human body. As Sebastian mentioned earlier, the “/” is structured like the sheet of paper in linguistics. Which is to say, our body is a being of two leaves, from one side a thing among things and otherwise what sees them and touches them; we say, because it is evident, that it unites these two properties within itself, and its double belongingness to the order of the “object” and to the order of the “subject” reveals to us quite unexpected relations between the two orders.

We can both touch and be touched. We feel the outside world with the same organ that is felt by that world. The precise boarder of our body, that which keeps our insides in, also provides our primary source of contact with the outside world. What is this ultimate limit? I’m speaking here about flesh.

Skin is both the immediate, paper-thin barrier between the subject and the object and the limit that stands as the site of intertwining between the two. This goes to say – flesh is chiasmically structured. As both the barrier and the sensory organ to the world, flesh is the center of the “X;” it is the point at which subject and object cross, the point at which they become indistinguishable from one another.

Flesh is in constant superposition. There is no subject/object split after all, but rather just two sides of the same thing. Flesh is the body and the world making a single system, where the subject and the object have become whole – two sides of the same phenomenon. This complex relationship has yet no term in philosophy. That is why we must name it “flesh.”

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Returning to the athleticism of Jack Wallace’s performance art pieces, we can see how bodily materiality might fuse binary opposites into a single ontological system, just as the heavens might be fused with the earth to form a single sphere.

jack wallace / OSSIFY

In Wallace’s “OSSIFY” performances, all division between immanence and transcendence is obliterated. They are rather one, fused by sculptural action. Like bones reaching out from the void, a rope “umbilical cord” connects the animal realm with the heavens. It is important to note that the animal realm, here, is denoted by a zebra skin rug in the shape of the “rectangle-within-rectangle” diagram.

Done in the Shade library just a few weeks ago, Wallace climbs a rope from the zebra rectangle to an I-beam in the ceiling above. A bone is created by mixing plaster and water in a series of buckets, which are attached to his harness, and then smoothed onto the rope until it hardens. The athletic performance of climbing and plastering solidifies this field of truth within the body itself. Its connection is ossified. The bodily and the transcendental become inexorably linked, compressed, even, into one.

jack wallace / OSSIFY

The main character, “The Climber,” is caked in white clay, an image that instantly calls to mind the aesthetic of Butoh dancers. In highly controlled form, the dancer must emancipate pure life from the flesh of the body by means of extreme, grotesque action.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Everything combines upon the skin. Flesh, as a from of presencing (which is to say, as a process of making existence reemerge into the open of pure presence), is inherently chiasmic, an immeasurable intertwining of infinite depth, combining both presence and absence, visibility and invisibility, even life and death into a new metaphysical doctrine that deconstructs both the subject and the object by focusing solely on the “/.”

Here, everything becomes one sole tissue: the chiasmic flesh, which is a universal flesh. It is a primordial assembly of Things. And, it is the place from which we shall gain a new vision.

carolee schneemann / MEAT JOY

We see artists such as Yoko Ono chiasmically deconstruct the relationship between viewer and art object in “Cut Piece.” Hermann Nitsch’s gory religious actions ecstatically combine the profane the holy into a single substance. And of course, Carolee Schnemann’s orgiastic happenings, such as “Meat Joy,” celebrate the flesh as material in a Dionysian chiasm of pleasure and pain, love and cruelty, and creation and annihilation, all into a single witches’ brew.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: There, Yoko and I merged in artistic chiasm. Flesh states: there is no subject or object independent of a relationship; they are rather two sides of the “/.” The technological stance, as we were previously discussing, is only constituted by cuts through the paper surface of language, by the establishment of arbitrary difference. We now know that this duality was only ever an illusion, like the fish. There were never “two things,” just one thing seen from two different perspectives. Our goal, then, is to eliminate this difference. Thus, true ontological reality can only be revealed upon the thin line of materiality between these two states, the place that is “both and yet neither.” Some day, we will meet there again.

This clarifies our phenomenological project – we must return to the flesh, to the uncut “/” itself. To approach the flesh (and eradicate all linguistic difference in doing so) means that we near some line of obliterating continuity, one that boarders both death and life in equal measure. This is an extreme experience, and one that must only exist at the furthest limit.

Therefore, flesh is a limit-experience.

VII: LIMIT-EXPERIENCE & THE VOID

SEBASTIAN HEIM: We must always seek experience at its furthest limit. We must push the boundaries of love and sex, of life and violence, of presence and vision. Only then can we touch the void. Only then can we break through lack and reemerge into the open. All beings are, by definition, in chiasmic contact with all of Being.

Flesh is a radically transformative experience. It changes us. It breaks down the walls of our isolated egos, it pushes our minds and bodies to their breaking points, and it chiasmically combines us with others, obliterating boundaries and opening us into the void, that universal nexus of unspeakable truth.

Such a “limit-experience” can be defined by quickly turning to mathematics. A “limit” is, quite simply, when one value approaches another value. In this case, we’re speaking about the technological subject approaching the void. That sounds poetic, but what does it mean? We can get some clarification by turning to another math term – the asymptote. As we mentioned earlier, we’re not talking about actual death. Yes, death is the purest experience of the void, to which we will all someday return. But that is not our point here. Our goal, while being alive, is to live.

In that case, via flesh, we must asymptotically approach death. An asymptote occurs when a curve gets infinitely close to a line. This happens when the distance between the two values becomes zero, infinitely so, but somehow they never touch, they never intersect. This should instantly remind you of set theory mathematics and the definition of “radical newness.” Remember, there we had two sets sharing nothing in common except for the void. Which is to say – the set of life and the set of death only touch at the void’s surface, the surface which we have named “flesh.”

In other words, an asymptote is when a line and a curve only tangent at infinity. Seen from the perspective of the body, this becomes an extreme form of passion. We see this type of “limit-experience” in intense states of revealing disassociation, like through drugs and radical spirituality, through intoxication and violent Dionysian abandon, we see it in the artist’s punishing language of ascetic practice and bodily exploration, we see it in the uninhibited performance of sado-masochistic eroticism with the body of a lover, and we see it here, in the Shade library, in the questioning minds of each other, our friends, our peers, our fellow revolutionaries, and at the mouths of Miner’s caves, those rhizomatic systems of communal existence, an unspeakable touch, and what it teaches us about Truth, however unknowable.

Flesh asymptotically breaches the boundaries separating reason and unreason, conscious and unconscious, pleasure and pain, and, at its most extreme limit, the very line that chiasmically combines life and death.

In this diagram, we can see how the limit-experience fits into our schema of existence. Asymptotically approaching the outside “/” stands as a limit-experience to death. This is because outside of the rectangle (which is to say, outside of language) lies pure presence – obliterating death. To approach the outside flesh is to gain a nearness to death.

However, we have another asymptotic option. We can approach the inside “/,” the flesh of our innards, the void at our very hearts. This is the lack. As we mentioned earlier, desire paints over the lack and drive orbits around it. Yet, here, at the extreme limit of experience, we can dive directly into the void. Such an experience would be a deep dive into ourselves, into the darkness at the depths of our cave-like hearts. Such an asymptote is the limit-experience to Truth.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: To dive within is an event of shadows. If the boarders around our diagram, the “/,” is flesh, then are we claiming that there are two types of flesh? Outward-facing flesh and inward-facing flesh?

Yes, we most certainly are. Our skin is the outside of our bodies. To breach that “real flesh,” we shall call it, is to die, since real flesh is the boarder between life and death. I am not being metaphorical here. To cut all your skin off is to be dead. Thus, the limit-experience of real flesh is death.

However, we must ask, what is the inward-facing flesh within our psyches? What is the boarder around our lack? What is the thin membrane that separates our technological selves from the thing within us that isuniversal? We have no name for this yet, even though we touch its limit every time we dive deep. I shall name this inward-facing boarder our “shadow flesh” to borrow a term from Carl Jung. This shadow flesh chiasmically connects both our personas with our shadows and our egos with the Self. Thus, the limit-experience of the shadow flesh is Truth.

yves kline / LEAP INTO THE VOID

In Yves Kline’s “Leap into the Void” we see the artist levitating between states of existence. “A man in space!” the caption read when Kline published this image in a one-day newspaper seven years ago. “The painter of space leaps into the void!” Chiasmically poised between states, Klein’s leap directly situates the body over the void.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Let’s do the same. Let’s situate our rectangle diagram over the void and see what happens. In the way we had previously narrativized life, existence as pure presence had been a complete rectangle, and then the mirror stage had removed a piece as lack. Maybe this is the opposite way we should be looking at existence? Perhaps lack isn’t the missing section, but rather, life itself, the technological stance, is a donut-shaped screen laid across the primordial void?

What we now see is a depiction of the two types of flesh, as Maurice was outlining earlier. Outside of real flesh there is the void. This is death. Within shadow flesh there is also the void. This is Truth. This death/truth chiasm should be reminiscent of the cave-structure of existence. Perhaps this diagram was never two-dimensional? Let’s turn it on its side.

Now we can finally explain why the void was simultaneously outside the cave and deep within its recesses. The truth is – there is only void. The cave-structure-rectangle diagram of existence was only laid across the void. The chiasm of flesh thus combines both inside and outside into one cave-like labyrinth. Big death lies on the outside of real flesh, while evental Truth lies on the inside of shadow flesh. Our goal, then, as evental wanderers, as truth seekers, is to dive deep.

Since Maurice mentioned Jung earlier as inspiration for “the shadow,” I’m reminded of a dream he once recounted, one where he dove “deep into an abyss.” I think that his story can resonate here. He wrote, “I frequently imagined a steep descent. I even made several attempts to get to the very bottom. The first time I reached, as it were, a depth of about a thousand feet; the next time I found myself at the edge of a cosmic abyss. It was like a voyage to the moon, or a descent into empty space. First came the image of a crater, and I had the feeling that I was in the land of the dead. The atmosphere was that of the other world.”

Jung’s inward-seeking project of individuation, as we’ve just heard, has the same language as our outward celestial wandering. Themes of “diving deep” into “thousands of feet,” of “cosmic abysses,” of “empty space” and “the land of the dead.” Perhaps these two projects are the same, chiasmically combined by a single flesh? Human beings, it seems, are compelled to venture into the emptiness of space because going out is no different than going in.

We are always, only, searching for ourselves.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: Let’s touch upon this “archetype of archetypes,” to use a Jungian phrase. As we’ve established, the limit of real flesh is death. But to die in death is Sun logic, as the rapture showed us. Our goal is not to die, no per say. Rather, when we dive inside the cave of ourselves, into the darkness that is the shadow flesh, we find a deathless death. This is the void as infinite paradox, as werewolf, as superposition, as chiasm, or, as Jung would say, as “Self” with a capitol “S.” This “Self” is the eternal archetype of our Being.

Our inward-facing spiritual journeys have taught us that “being” is inexorably linked to “Being.” Jung wrote that the Self (which is only his word for “the void”) has “no definable character at all – born, living, dead, everything in one, a total vision of life.” All of human existence, he claims, is contained within the body of the individual. This is because the individual is never actually a singular being. He posits that we all house the universal void within our core. This is the God within everyone, the cosmos within everyone, the Truth within us all.

As Jung once asked, “The decisive question for mankind is this: are we related to something infinite, or not?” Let us attempt to answer this question today. In hopes of doing so, I’d like to posit that “real flesh” and “shadow flesh” were never two separate things at all. Why would they be, after all we’ve learned over the past month? They were always “both and yet neither” from the outset, like our fish. The inside of the cave and the outside of the cave, Truth and death, must chiasmically combine into one flesh, which we must conceptualize as a “superposition of flesh,” all states at once.

We shall name this superposition “universal flesh.” This universal flesh shall become our new vision; it’s the true goal of our phenomenological project. This universal flesh would be radically attuned to prepersonal intercorporeality, to the pure presence of the visible, to openness itself.

Yet, how does this happen? How can the inside reach the outside?

Let flesh touch flesh, I say. Let’s open the caves. Let’s open ourselves. Not bridge the lack, but tear it open. Yes – the tear above our heads opens. When we enter it we entangle with it. It turns us into superposition. All of us within the void – that is universal flesh. We pull open shadow flesh until it touches real flesh. The two “/’s” become one and the same, Truth and death, like living without being alive, like a deathless form of dying. Flesh is the frontier.

matthew björn / JOUISSANCE

Matthew Björn’s installation “Jouissance” begins with our familiar rectangle-within-rectangle structure. Yet, circulating around the plaster screen is a wax action painting, which looks milky-clear like semen. Referencing Pollock, this wax painting signifies ejaculation, which, as the end of the sexual act accompanied by orgasm, is the “little death” of eroticism. This outside symbolizes our real flesh.

Within the lack we see a video projection of the artist slowly working, with the heat of his hands, on a pink wax weight. Like an anus, the hole in the center of the weight is slowly opened, expanding the darkness of the orifice. This darkness is the shadow flesh within the individual’s psyche. This act of pulling open an anus is reminiscent of the obliterating pleasure of S/M – like extreme fisting. The goal here isn’t to “finish,” but to explore. This is a new possibility of pleasure, one that eroticizes the entire body, not just the genitalia. By desexualizing pleasure, the artist is staking a claim on the entire body as canvas for his act of creation.

By ripping open the weight, Björn is exploding the binary of flesh. He expands the hole in the center, the lack itself, in hopes of touching the outer edge with the inner edge, the two “/’s”. These two then become the same, as if death and Truth have entered superposition. The inside of the cave becomes indistinguishable from the outside of the cave. In short, the artist is enacting universal flesh.

When the two sides touch, something incredible happens. Something unspeakable at the limit of experience. This something is outside the realm of knowledge completely, since what we’re talking about is precisely a rupture in knowledge – evental Truth. Here, within the fissures of the tear, universal flesh collapses our entire structure of consciousness. Everything changes. Everything becomes the void.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Thus, we find ourselves back within the visible. Within the open of pure presence. Only different, now. We’ve returned to where we began but with fresh perspective. After all, our phenomenological project was always about vision. It was always about seeing the void.

What does this mean? Let’s briefly look at the structure of light. Einstein and Tao helped show us that light’s experience of itself is chiasmically structured. That is to say, light is going light speed. This means that, for light, time dilation is at its infinite limit. All of history is compressed into a single moment, from past to present to future. Like axiom one of evental geometry, time becomes a single point in superposition. Also, distance contraction reaches its infinite limit. Relativity shows that, as a body approaches light speed, space contracts with time. Thus the expression, “space-time.” There, at light speed, all of the cosmos is compressed into a singularity. Light is everywhere all at once, like a field of inconsistent multiplicity. Thus, inside the cave of ourselves, once expanded to its limit, there is only becoming-light.

This is our new matheme for universal flesh, for the evental Truth process. Here we see the void of our shadow flesh expanding outwards in all directions. An outwards movement, indeed. As the “/” of shadow flesh opens, its limit reaches the limit of real flesh, the outward “/” of death. Thus, the two voids touch and become one – universal flesh.

With a blinding light, the void becomes our new vision.

MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY: We must take literally what vision teaches us: namely, that through it we come into contact with the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere all at once.

Posted in Fiction, Meditations | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

fidelity to the void.

Being & Death
Lecture: “Fidelity to the Void”
21 March 1967

PHILLIP TRIBE: Thank you. Yes. Tonight, we drink champagne. I’ve added pomegranate seeds at the bottom of each of your glasses. They dye it pink over time. A fabulous way to get drunk. They give it a little crunch, a mysterious flavor. Am I right? Us exiles, like Persephone in Hades. Six in each flute. If this is fate, well – three-cheers. May we never leave the shadows. A toast, then. To the Shade.

This evening we bring together several speakers, all of whom you know. Our topic at hand is the void, and the potential it has to create Truth within Being. I’m talking now of a new conception of Truth, one of unbounded continuity, one that is infinite and unspeakable. Truth, in this model, in the sense of “radical newness,” is one completely opposed to its position in traditional Western metaphysics.

Conventionally, in the West, for the past two thousand years, at least, Truth has been placed at the top of a knowledge pyramid, as the logocentric goal of the philosophical hierarchy. The belief has been: if you pile up enough knowledge, meticulously enough, if it’s logically sound, etcetera, well, then you will be able to climb your way to Truth, like a rickety tower of Babel. Truth, in this sense, for the West, is a God on a throne. This was Plato’s legacy.

In The Republic, Plato establishes one of the West’s most foundational analogies with his allegory of the cave. To briefly summarize: men are chained against the floor of a cavern, their backs toward a fire, only permitted to stare at reflections against a wall. Eventually, one of the men breaks free, sees the reality of the situation, and exits the cave in order to gaze upon things as they truly are. In this story, the “sun” outside of the “cave” is meant to stand in for the transcendental signified, which is to say, Truth. In his allegory, the philosophers are the ones who leave this cave, see the Truth, and then bring its knowledge back to free the prisoners. The philosophers explain to them that such shadows are mere representations of reality, and that only under the light of the sun are things truly real.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Plato saw only sunspots. The wager of his story rests upon the hegemony of light – however, by staying within the logical space of this allegory we can mine for deeper layers of meaning. See, Plato could only imagine two choices: watch representations flicker on the cave wall, or exit the fissure completely and stare blankly at the thing itself, the sun. He was a moth to certainty. This made his shortsighted. He spoke only of light and nothing else. These two options, we now know, are only two-thirds of the story.

What does it mean to turn inwards, to dive deep? What unknowns are contained within this vast network of caves, at which humanity has only sat at the mouth? Us limit-seekers, we condemn the simplicity and safety of the sun, and instead, we turn inside ourselves, create a break with historical narrative, and plunge, unspeakably, into the black belly of the cave itself. That nadir contains Dionysian truth; we dance in its infinite darkness and sing out with the pain it causes us. Into its depths, that endless abyss, we jump with open wings. As only the void is infinite.

So let us speak of endless things. As it is we. We are the speleologists of radical Truth.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Only in the depths, yes. Well put: us, the philosophers of the Shade. The vanguard of a new Shadow-Truth. But that is now. Let us revisit, for a moment, Plato’s allegory. In order to glimpse the implications its narrative has given us.

Returning to the sun – if you follow me – that was the origin of the West’s metaphors for intelligence: enlightened, shed light upon, etc. Plato believed that truth was pure knowledge, ideas, or essences. In Republic he writes of a goodness that is the source of all things, a sun that gives light to the world. This sun is not only a sensible object in the physical world, but rather “the mind’s ascent to the intelligible realm.” This sphere can be thought of as the kingdom of pure forms, essences towards which all representations point. In his own words, the sun is, “the progenitor of light and the source of light, and in the intelligible realm it is the source and provider of truth and knowledge.”

Let us take this metaphor literally. If humans were to truly achieve presence with Truth, if they were to truly exit the cave and be present with this new source of light, then they must look directly at the sun. And anyone who’s been a kid knows, you’re not supposed to look directly at the sun. Why? Because it’s blinding.

JACQUES DERRIDA: Ah yes, the dream of death begins. It seems as if we’re saying, by analogy, that pure presence itself, if such a thing were possible, would be only another name for death. Presence before the sun, that is, as an absolute form of blindness. So, it seems, we need something, some sort of protection, or veil, against the terrifying, blinding, mortal threat of that which presents itself, which thrusts itself into view.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Possibly. Or perhaps that morbid fate is just the destiny we have been given by Plato, by the Western tradition. Is Truth only attainable in death? Let us turn to semiotics and its relationship to psychoanalysis in order to better understand the structural position around which such an idea circulates.

I will begin, briefly, by summarizing the model of negative difference that is the foundational concept of linguistics. Semiotics establishes that terms only exist in differential relationships, in being what others are not. If I may use the example Sebastian used in Minutor Sacer: the notion of “raw” is incomprehensible without its opposition to the term “cooked.” Without one of the two, there is only “meat,” and all distinction dissolves. “Raw” only exists in negative difference to “cooked,” and vice versa. Thus, this foundational gesture of distinction instantly creates a dichotomy of terms – the first moment is two. Everything within language exists this way. Following this rule, the post-modern subject becomes one of extreme separation.

The moment we become conscious, become aware of the visible and the linguistic world, we immediately separate ourselves from it. The world then becomes the object, or the other, in order for us to become the subject. Jacques – this is what you’ve described in your work on the “Mirror Stage,” correct?

JACQUES LACAN: Precisely. At the moment we organize our identity behind an image in the mirror (or the pronoun “I”) we are able to become a coherent whole, as if we, for the first time, are able to see ourselves as the other sees us. This coherent whole is made by means of separation. We apprehend the world in a perception that seems to concern the immanence of the “I see myself seeing myself.” The privilege of the subject seems to be established here from the bipolar reflexive relation by which, as soon as I perceive, my representations belong to me.

In the development of the human being, subjectivity is formed at this moment. This word “imaginary” is used to denote that it is both a fiction and an image. When we, as children, first see ourselves as the other sees us (whether it be figuratively in the gaze, or literally in the mirror), we instantly connect and organize our scattered psychological experiences behind the image we see. Thus, we are led, therefore, to regard the function of the mirror-stage as a particular case of the function of the imago, which is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality – or, as they say, between the inner world and the outer world. We bring the outside in, internalize the gaze of the other, and found our subjectivity upon the coherent image we see.

However, the moment we separate the other from ourselves with this constituting gesture (the negative difference of “I/you” being analogous to the “raw/cooked” binary), a hole is created in the psychological system. The world is thus separated from the subject. This is the foundational gesture of lack.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Lack, yes. If I may recap for a moment – the mirror stage is an allegory of sorts. An infant, so to speak, sees itself in the mirror for the first time. Two things happen. First, it is able to say, “That outline around my body, that is me. I have an image.” And what is contained, it realizes, within that outline is the “I.” This is the formation of identity. But at such great cost. Via negative difference, the moment we have an “I,” there comes a “you.” Suddenly, the moment identity is formed, the entire world of objects and others recedes from the subject into the infinite distance. Which is to say, the individual is only able to organize its coherence around the “I” by severing off everything else as “you.” This separation creates lack, a hole at the center of the psychological subject, a breach that can never be filled during conscious life; this lack can only ever be worked on by, say, desire, or by the drive.

JACQUES LACAN: The lack is the loss of the world. The loss of everything.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Yes, and spiritually, this system establishes a life-denying ethos: the only way to bridge the lack, decisively, is to exit language, to exit the system of difference itself. To leave distance would be to achieve presence. That is the Truth the West has sought. Presence before the sun is also pure presence, the bridging of the lack. And, as we have seen, and Jacques, as you have pointed out, this is only another name for death. For how else can language be lost? Or visual difference? Only in death does the world return to us.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Death is presence, sure. But what of Truth? Especially this, our radical conception of Truth as event. In this system, where does the void play? Perhaps structural linguistics isn’t the only hermeneutic for understanding Truth, since it doesn’t address the void as such? That being the case, let us search for another ontological language, one that isn’t founded upon negative difference.

For the rest of the evening, let us turn our gaze to mathematics.

ALAIN BADIOU: Mathematics is ontology. Strictly speaking, mathematics presents nothing – besides presentation itself. And language most certainly presents things. For instance, Phillip’s raw/cooked binary is specific to meat, a presentation of the world. It speaks to the “what” of the world. When dealing with the “what,” semiotics is necessary. However, mathematics doesn’t deal with the “what,” but rather the “how.”

Human beings understand their surroundings by differentiating objects and organizing them into sets. This shall be our definition of “knowledge.” In the set of meat, our raw/cooked binary constitutes two subsets, two “whats” of meat. Set theory mathematics, on the other hand, presents only the presentation of these sets, only the “how” of sets becoming subsets, regardless of content. Thus, set theory is a meta-presentation. This is what makes it a true ontology.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Set theory, then, provides us with a way of describing terms whose only characteristic is distinction itself. What this means is – language divides Being into sets by selecting elements and forming subsets, by creating distinctions based on nothing other than an arbitrary distinction: words. This is the negativity of semiotics.

However, set theory is a meta-hermeneutic, allowing us to understand how these distinctions are to be navigated while disregarding what they are. This “how” presents a radically new theory of existence. While semiotics needs negative difference to constitute elements, set theory only needs the notion of “belonging.”

In set theory, belonging is the only ontological verb, the only predicate for existence. For instance, consider the set of all galaxies. Any given galaxy within this set is treated the exact same as every other – nothing is defined against anything else. Unity is bestowed upon the multitude of elements that composite any given galaxy not by their own right, or by difference to something else, but simply because it belongs to the set of all galaxies. The multitude (our example galaxy) thus gains unity by belonging to the multiplicity (the universe).

ALAIN BADIOU: To say this in other words – to exist as a multiple is always to belong to a multiplicity. To exist is to be an element of. There is no other possible predicate of existence as such.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: This is a radical notion of collectivity, and a purely positive view of existence. This concept is enormous: belonging. An element only exists by belonging, and this before all else. Difference only becomes a factor when creating subsets. Subsets are made by selecting elements out of a set and placing them in brackets.

Jumping ahead, it becomes clear then, that a set must exist that does not yet contain difference, which is to say, no possible subsets. This is a crucial notion. To not have difference is to not have selectivity. The only way for this to be possible, for something to not have selectivity, so to speak, is for a set to have no members. This set with no members cannot have any subsets, and therefore cannot have any elements selected from it, and thus, by definition, doesn’t contain any form of difference.

Logically, the only un-selected set would be the null set, the empty set, the set with no members, which is to say – the void. This next part is critical to understand: the null set has no members, but it exists.

Let us represent this empty set with a single matheme – the barred sphere, or the circle with a slash through it:

This image should be a familiar one, since it can be seen as a representation of our world, the Earth, as seen from space, with the Shade cutting across it like a tear.

PHILLIP TRIBE: This is incredible. The void exists without difference, a notion that shatters the negativity of semiotics, and one that creates new conceptions of identity through multiplicity.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Only through understanding the void are we able to achieve multiplicity, a positive and life-affirming process of Truth.

ALAIN BADIOU: All of set theory is founded upon the void. It is there alone that it is finally declared that, despite the prodigious variety of mathematical “objects” and “structures,” they can all be designated as pure multiplicities built, in a regulated manner, on the basis of the void set alone.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: I would hazard to say that everything is possible only because the void exists. The void set, because it exists yet has no members, shouldn’t be thought of as empty, but rather should be conceptualized as the “not-yet-selected,” as a multiplicity that has not yet entered into the realm of selectivity. This means that by not selecting anything, there can be no difference within the void – it is empty, but with absolute positivity.

This is why we must consider the void as the foundational not-yet-selected multiplicity; rather than a nothing, it is nothingness, phantom inconsistency, so to speak, the pure form of the unpresentable.

PHILLIP TRIBE: So, by having the void be the foundation of set theory, this leads me to believe that there can be no atom, no smallest point, no indivisible “one” that can be reached by means of division.

SEBASTION HEIM: Right. Our first term is empty – there is no originary “one.” Rather, the void is the multiple of nothing: pure multiplicity without selectivity.

ALAIN BADIOU: This “first” presented-multiplicity-without-concept has to be the multiple of nothing.

SEBASTION HEIM: This “multiple of nothing,” as Alain puts it, is not only the foundational term of set theory, but it is also contained within every subsequent set. Since the void set has no members, it must therefore automatically belong to every set – since there is no distinction with which to differentiate it, nothing can prevent its inclusion.

ALAIN BADIOU: To state this formula mathematically:

(∀β) [∅ ⊂ β]

Which reads, as predicted: of any supposed given multiple β, ∅ is a subset. The void is thus clearly in a position of universal inclusion.

PHILLIP TRIBE: If the foundation of set theory is the void, and if all sets stem from the void and are composed from the void alone, for this to be possible, then the void must be something infinitely positive, some sort of multiplicity with infinite, yet un-selected existence.

This is absolutely beautiful. But is it only poetry? How can such a notion of multiplicity ring true for the subject? Or is the void inconceivable by definition? Is it that we’re too immersed in negative difference to comprehend the infinite? I guess what I’m trying to ask is – how can a subject, a constituted subject formed, as Jacques outlined, by the mirror stage, how can this subject come to understand the status of the void?

JACQUES LACAN: By linking them directly. We can invoke the void in order to mathematically describe the process of identity construction itself. As I said earlier, with the Mirror Stage, before the subject defines himself against the other through negative difference, he first must organize his fractured psychology around an image – the image in the mirror, the “I,” the proper name. We shall call this realm the “Imaginary.”

After this image of unity is created, only then can the subject enter into the regulated system of language, of subjects and of objects – this realm, we shall name, the “Symbolic” – and this is precisely where the negative difference of semiotics begins for the subject, within the Symbolic realm.

However since the “individual” is an inconsistent multiplicity in and of itself, there is never any true unity, just a retroactive imposition of imaginary identity. The subject that organizes behind the “I” is always fractured, both mentally and physically.

PHILLIP TRIBE: For instance – where do we draw the line between “our body” and outside forces that “aren’t our body,” like reading glasses? Are bacteria “our body?” Are water molecules? Is the energy we consume ours? Similarly, where is our psychology “ours” and when is it genetic drive, ideological influence, subconscious representation? Suddenly, this line of  “our identity” becomes one of absolute indistinction.

JACQUES LACAN: That’s a perfect word for it: indistinction. Identity is always volatile. The subject is unstable, never a whole, never a totality. Let me paraphrase set theory by invoking the void with an equation:

∅ + 1

This formula of the “plus one” is the basis of all the theories of numbers. It is this question of the “one more” that is key to the genesis of numbers and instead of this unifying unity that constitutes two in the first case I propose that you consider the real numerical genesis of two.

The class which is characterized by no elements is the first class; you have one at the place of zero and afterward it is easy to understand how the place of one becomes the second place.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: So the subject, we’re numerically demonstrating, is never a whole, never divisible down to a “one” or a unity. One is always already “one more,” just as identity is always a retroactive “this is who I am,” always a work-in-progress.

Addition is not “1 + 1,” but rather “∅ + 1.” The very foundation of the subject, as Jacques stated, is the void, the empty set. But since the void is an unselected multiplicity, an organism attempting to exist in such a state would be psychologically incoherent, fractured, and disorganized – it wouldn’t survive. Thus, the organism constructs identity in order to give unity where there was none before – which has clear evolutionary benefit.

JACQUES LACAN: This is accomplished via repetition. The two does not complete the one to make two, but must repeat the one to permit the one to exist. Which is to say, a “plus one” to the void does not make two, but rather constitutes the one itself.

This procedure is also an erasure. Each subsequent “plus one” must erase its predecessor in order for the new trait to appear as if it were present in the subject all along.

ALAIN BADIOU: Which, in fact, it has been – but within the void as something unselected.

PHILLIP TRIBE: If I understand this correctly, we’re saying that each attribute, each “plus one” retroactively constructs unity where there was previously only the void. This is rendered palpable, for example, when a subject is, say, for instance, creating a resume – those bizarre documents of modern society. All resumes construct past experiences as “meant for this moment.” This creates a narrative – the narrative of identity.

What this means is – once narrativized in a resume, all past jobs instantly become situated as “preparation” for the new position. Whatever previous intention there may have been, it all gets effaced retroactively in regards to the newest “plus one.”

Sebastian – for example, how did you position your training as an astronaut when you were being considered as head of Unified Rail?

SEBASTIAN HEIM: As I’m sure you can expect. Something traditional like that, like the government’s space program, carries imbedded cultural meaning. The board read my time near the ring as a signifier for “resolve” and “loyalty,” especially towards the administration. They also saw it as a connection to the science of the Shade, giving me a unique perspective on the stakes of running the rails. Which is to say, they loved it. They thought it was a perfect background for the job, and eventually even saw it as a necessary attribute for the CEO, as in, “This is the only way to lead this company.” Ironic, now.

PHILLIP TRIBE: This is the reason we always seem “destined” for our identities: every subsequent “plus one” is read as the first term, since the void is never read. That is to say, each unique term, the “plus ones,” retroactively feigns unity where there is, in truth, only a void.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: And that, my friend, is the Truth. Behind all the “plus ones” sits a vast nothingness. There is only the void. There, deep in the caverns of our selves, it waits. It is the womb that we long for, the source of infinite connectedness that we look for in dreams, while on drugs, in the sexual act. In all of those cases, we see a stripping down of identity. Our goal: reach the void at the back of the cave. This is essential.

But how can we get there? Perhaps this process of “plus one” can also be reversed? Jacques, you’ve shown how “unique” identity is constructed by adding “one,” but a psychoanalytically aware thinker, maybe, could also reverse this formula to achieve a new image of thought, one that explodes out of logocentric ideology and spreads outwards in all directions.

See, I have something particular in mind. Gilles, from our conversation last night – please describe your equation for rhizomatic thought.

GILLES DELEUZE: Let me start with a metaphor: the dominant ideology of the modern era, as given to us by Plato, is tree-shaped. It’s a hierarchical system stemming from a central “one.” It is in this manner that Western thought has proposed the logos as its master, and everything else, all of material existence, must spread hierarchically down from it, just as all roots spread out from a single tree. This is the arborescent model, as in “tree-like.” Any source that builds up vertically, any system that has just one head, follows this form. The head is all that matters in the arborescent model. The rest is just roots.

In other words, I’m saying that our dominant ideology, just like identity, is constructed around the fiction of the “plus one” – a process in which the void is effaced in service to the unity of the head.

Okay. Now let’s think the opposite. What is a rhizome?

FELIX GUATTARI: The rhizome is a way to think multipley, a way to stay true to the void. As opposed to the tree, a rhizome is a plant with an underground, horizontal stem that sends up roots from its nodes. The roots and the flowers may die season to season, but the heart of the plant is safely contained and spread out beneath the surface. This notion of a non-hierarchical and de-territorialized root system, without beginning or end, just pure middle, is an elegant way to explain thinking multipley.

GILLES DELEUZE: The multiple must be made, not by always adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available – always:

∅ – 1

We must subtract the unique from the multiplicity in order to construct the rhizome; we must write at “void minus one” dimensions.

A system of this kind could be called a rhizomatic.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Like the miners? Would you describe their system of organization to be rhizomatic?

FELIX GUATTARI: Yes. The miners were our first case study for understanding the rhizome. They exist in a way unheard of to Western thought, or to any human culture in general. They are truly a collective social entity. A natural multiplicity. As collective beings, as the extreme logic of the “minus one,” they are closest to the void. This is because of their absolute rhizomatic structure.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: So, like the miners, a rhizome is a multiple that is made up by un-making the work done by identity, by subtracting the “ones” that constitute unique totality. Achieving this rhizomatic image of thought, then, refutes the dominant ideology precisely because the rhizome is multiple. To be a multiplicity means to be non-hierarchical, to be centerless, headless.

Subtracting the “ones” of identity is a radical process of de-territorialization; it is an outwards movement. Instead of a “falling-into-line” with ideology, the rhizome proposes absolute beginnings and infinite becomings.

GILLES DELEUZE: When we studied the miners we saw them as an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states. Learning from them shattered everything we knew about how a society organized, and what it could mean to live as a collective.

Living this way, to them – there could be no other way. The separation and difference of identity, to the miners, is a horrifying thought.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: They are like deep-sea currents in the void itself.

PHILLIP TRIBE: I do have to say: this is difficult work. A very thorny path to descend. See, for me, pure rhizome is near incomprehensible to understand, especially in relation to thinking – it is near impossible to even figure out what it is. The miners can exist in this state, sure, but can men and women? What is it about the Shade that has the potential to change Being?

To inform this, we should rather look at what this new image of thought can do for us. As in, perhaps, for our society, changing our identities in order to become a-centered and non-hierarchical could allow us to abolish totalizing (and totalitarian) power. If the logos is uprooted and de-territorialized, then the multitude is empowered as such. This could be an entirely new possibility for thought.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: As a methodology of thought, yes – that is a perfect way of putting it. As a non-signifying system, the rhizome could allow us to un-think negative difference. That’s a massive achievement.

Only here in the Shade are we able to think outwards from all points, multipley. The rhizome stretches out across the earth, all beneath the surface, like the endless Ikaros caves, those deep abysses. By subtracting the “ones” of specific identity, the rhizomatic multitude, like the miners, is able to think in common – of what is universally in common: the void.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Such a rhizomatic outlook is purely positive; it means, literally, thinking the multiplicity. Just like in set theory – where existence is belonging. The rhizome is positive. It is affirmative Being.

FELIX GUATTARI: Here in the Shade, we are all multitude.

GILLES DELEUZE: We are all rhizomatic.

ALAIN BADIOU: Let me add an important note: this notion of the rhizome is not blindly utopian, but rather, and simply, it is mathematical.

PHILLIP TRIBE: Speaking of math, I want to return to our equations for a moment. Gilles, as you said, the rhizome is achieved by a process of “∅ – 1.” When paired with our equation for identity, “∅ + 1,” we can see from their reflective similarity, that a narrative begins to emerge. By subtracting the “plus ones” of identity, the “minus ones” of rhizomatic thinking result in one thing: the void.

In so many words, the multiplicity that we’re hoping to achieve through thinking rhizomatcially is, in fact, the void itself. And as Jacques demonstrated, this void is the starting point of every identity – of all of us.

The question remains, however: is the image of thought presented by these equations enough to grant us access to the void? Is the rhizome even a feasible methodology? Starting from where we are, the subject, is it even possible to subtract identity?

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Without a doubt, but not in such a clear-cut manner. Let’s focus on the fact that the mathematical processes for identity construction and rhizomatic thinking are both founded on the void. The key to grasping this overlap is to understand the operation of the count.

ALAIN BADIOU: Quite simply, the nothing is the operation of the count. But how, you ask? Specifically, how does the void operate? How does this multiple of nothing multiply itself? The best way to understand this is to diagram a sequence of sets. Let’s envision them as whole numbers:

0 = ∅ –> empty
1 = {∅} –> selects the “zero” (1 set)
2 = {∅, {∅}} –> selects the “zero” and the “one” (2 sets)
3 = {∅, {∅}, {∅, {∅}}} –> selects the “zero,” “one,” and “two” (3 sets)
Etc…

Starting at the top, we see that zero, which is our foundation, is nothing; it is empty, as signified by: “0 = ∅.” Then, following that initial emptiness, our “one” is formed by selecting the null set, or rather, by placing the ∅ within a single set of brackets: “1 = {∅}.” “Two” is then formed by selecting the nothing again, and placing it in a set along side the already selected null set (which was our one). Thus, “2 = 0 and 1.” “Three” is done the same way, by forming a set with the previous three: 0, 1, and 2.

Do not get thrown off by the amount of ∅’s on the right hand side of the equation, we are not counting them; rather, we are making a sum of all the previous sets. It is the set that is a unit, not its contents. Sets create “ones,” create unity, out of the nothing by selectivity.

Remember, set theory deals with the “how,” not the “what.” Do not think: ∅ plus ∅ plus ∅ should equal a number. Such an equation would be taking into account the contents of these sets. We are merely examining how combination occurs.

By treating each previous set, whatever it may contain, as “one,” we are able to count. Since we begin with the ∅, it is the set of ∅, the {∅}, that we are counting as “one.” Thus, as I mentioned a minute ago, the void is the operation of the count.

Continuing outwards from here, we can select elements from within the void to form complex sets (like the set of all galaxies), but this fundamental count still remains fact. Such a set of galaxies would still count as one, still composed solely of the void.

PHILLIP TRIBE: So, all sets are composed of the void, and all sets include the void. We’re essentially saying, if I follow correctly, that the void is the foundation of everything. But what is it? What is the void? If set theory allows us to only consider “how” it operates, not “what” is in it, then literally speaking, we can never know what it is at all. To us, the void must always be empty.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Yet, coming from set theory, we know that it is only considered empty (that it is counted as ∅) because it has not yet been selected. In fact, the void is infinitely full of ability-to-select. Everything must, and can, be selected from the void. It is pure positivity, pure potentiality.

To be crude, think of it like an infinite bag of strings – from string theory. The contents of this bag are incomprehensible to us, and therefore, from our understanding, it seems empty. But, as we know from string theory, the bag is actually full with the raw material to make, literally, everything. The void is no different.

And since the void is the not-yet-been-selected (not yet made into a “one,” not yet bracketed into “sets” or built into “things”), then it must also be incomprehensible – but in a radically productive way.

PHILLIP TRIBE: To briefly explain this metaphor, for those unfamiliar with string theory – it is, so to speak, a “theory of everything” in physics – it hopes to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity.

Simply put, string theory states that the smallest quantum of all matter is exactly the same – it all breaks down to vibrating strings. These strings, then, are the “everything” of the cosmos; they are the substance.

ALAIN BADIOU: This is why we must refer to the void as an “inconsistent multiplicity.” Only this phrase properly connotes the vast “everything-ness” of the void, while also maintaining its incomprehensible presentation. That is to say, the void is empty of selected contents (of sets), but full of potentiality, of ability-to-select.

JACQUES LACAN: The void is the wellspring. We might even say that it contains a black hole of jouissance – a whirlpool of unspeakable enjoyment. This “inconsistent multiplicity” is the Real – that which both outside of, and constitutes, symbolic reality.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Therefore, this thing we’re talking about: the void, our inconsistent multiplicity – it is the being of everything; however, it is un-differentiated, un-selected and un-presentable, yet infinitely positive – it is the “substance” in the Spinozian sense; it is the very inconsistent kernel of every consistent structure; it is the truth of Being.

Our goal then, must be to locate Truth (with a capital “T”) within this conception of the void.

ALAIN BADIOU: I think I have a starting point. By looking closely at the math we can identify an intersection. It is here that we must localize where the void touches the situation, which is to say, the moment when Truth ruptures knowledge.

To do this, we must recognize that the void is in every situation, yet it exists as unselected, and therefore cannot count as a “one.” Without being “one-ifiable,” so to speak, the void becomes that which destabilizes the consistency of a situation and ruptures its unity – which is to say, it is only ever present as a tear that keeps the situation from being complete.

The void, then, appears in symbolic reality only as the incomprehensible Real, as Jacques put it, that rupture that threatens Symbolic law even though it provides the very basis for order as such (remember, the void is the very operation of the count).

GILLES DELEUZE: I’m glad you said that. Quite the important distinction to make: multiplicity must not designate a combination of the many and the one, but rather an organization belonging to the many as such, which has no need whatsoever of unity in order to form a system. In this sense, multiplicity is the true substantive, substance itself.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Great – this, then, is how we will identify the void as it appears in being. As Alain said, the void, by definition, splits all unity. It can be seen as the Real intruding into the Symbolic. We will find the void, then, presented in a situation only insofar as there is an element of rupture present. The void will be indicated by a break, by a violation in the situation’s natural way of counting subsets.

Let us define as “knowledge” the way in which a situation recognizes and organizes its elements. Knowledge is a list of subsets. These subsets are “encyclopedic,” like a book of definitions. They are everything that “makes sense,” everything that we know.

However, this violation, this rupture of the Symbolic by the Real, this touch of the void, so to speak, is incomprehensible to the situation as such. It is outside of knowledge, and therefore, it is unknowable.

Here, we need to define a new term. We shall name void’s rupture of the situation an “event.”

An “event” cannot be known, since knowledge is a form of unity, and an event, by definition, is a tear in this unity. Thus, the void can never be perceived nor demonstrated; yet nevertheless, its crack in knowledge produces something new, as all revolutions do.

ALAIN BADIOU: Truth is always that which makes a hole in knowledge.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: What we have unfolding before us is a methodology, an ethics. The abstract thought experiment of subtracting the “ones” of identity to form a rhizomatic image of thought is beginning to solidify, to become something tangible.

It goes like this: an “event” appears in the situation of life in the form of a void, which is a rupture in the order of knowledge, a fissure of the Symbolic by the inconsistent Real. The void, being an infinitely positive multiplicity, cannot be totalized by an individual, differentiated by language, or selected to form a subset. But, since it constitutes every situation, this void is always present, however hidden.

ALAIN BADIOU: At the heart of every situation, as the foundation of its being, there is a “situated void,” around which is organized the plentitude (or the stable multiples) of the situation in question.

Being an inconsistent multiplicity, the void can never be “known,” only ever encountered as it ruptures a given situation, as it breaks knowledge.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Such ruptures will always occur since the Symbolic itself is founded upon this inconsistent multiplicity. Which is to say, known reality is always already unstable and bursting at the seams. This renders our knowledge perpetually incomplete. Which is fantastic, since this tear opens a window into Truth.

What we have, then, is the Real occasionally intruding into life and shattering our understanding. The void is thus always the void of a situation, since it is only through the specific rupture of knowledge (the coherent sets of a situation) that newness can emerge. As I said earlier, this eruption of radical newness is called an “event.”

Let me unpack this phrase: “radical newness.” How can something be “radically” new? Well, it can only be “radical” by being absolutely un-presented in the situation, by truly sharing no elements of any sort with symbolic reality. So, if set “B” is the encyclopedic (the normal situation), and the other set, set “A,” is our “radically new” set, then, for the contents of “A” to be absolutely and radically new to “B,” then there must have been no element in common from the outset.

Since the void is present in every set (as we demonstrated earlier, since it has no elements with which to exclude it from belonging), then the only overlap between the normal situation and our “newness” is the void itself:

a ∩ b = ∅

This reads as: The only intersection between set “A,” (our multiplicity-singularity of radical newness), and “B,” (the encyclopedic situation), is the void. It is this very intersection that is the “event,” like a tangential line intersecting a curve only at a single point. Thus, no elements of the event are presented in the situation, but the event, as a set, is presented in the form of a rupture. Therefore, the only intersection of radical newness and the situation is the evental void.

Which is to say, an event is a situated coming-into-contact with the void itself. And only as a violent rupture of knowledge does it have the infinite potentiality to create radical newness.

ALAIN BADIOU: This moment of rupture, if I may add, is a brief flash, almost instantaneous. This is because the event, as a hazardous and unpredictable supplement, vanishes as soon as it appears. The event itself isn’t Truth. But the radical newness that the event gives us a glimpse into, that, comrades, that is something to be true to, something to which a life should be dedicated – the bringing-into-the-world of newness.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Thus, the only way to be part of this process, this merging of the situation with the unknown, is to make a decision – to be true to this newness.

Let me appeal to your empirical experience in order to elucidate this choice, this moment of decision. It starts simply: There we are, living life as if everything makes sense. And then, at some point, something happens. We’ve all felt this inexplicable feeling – something occurs like a blinding flash. We have no words for it. It doesn’t even make sense. But we know in our hearts that something did indeed happen – that we saw something, that we felt something unspeakably new.

At this instant we are given a choice. We can either ignore this unnerving rupture and go back to living life as we did before – the way things made sense and made us feel comfortable. Or, we can make a decision. We can say, “Nothing will ever be the same. My world has shattered around me. In the face of this newness, my old life has become counterfeit and crumbles like a cheap façade. I must now, from this moment on, be true to that feeling – and build a new life around this newness.”

The most common example of this feeling is love. When seized by love, we are presented with a crossroads. Should we ignore its disruption and continue living as separate entities? Or do we see love for the radical break it is, as the absolute rupture of our daily lives, and then, completely re-organize our days around this “making love make sense.”

PHILLIP TRIBE: I felt that way when I first met Vladimir. It hit me like a thousand arrows.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Yes, see – we’ve all felt the event of love, one way or another. That’s because the void is universal.

Another sphere would be the experience of art. Profound art creates a rupture in our symbolic world, and tells us, “You will never see things the same, not ever again.” John – you did this to music fifteen years ago with your performance of “4’33’’.” Art, I’d wager, by definition, is this evental experience. Art is only ever an experience of radical newness – that is why it is both so deeply personal, and so universal.

Politics is also an example, like the break Marx made with capitalism. Our world still hasn’t figured out what to do with this choice. Science is another example, Vladimir – you must have felt this way many times in your life, especially when you developed tear theory, or when you watched Einstein wrestle with relativity.

See, my point is: Truth isn’t a thing. It’s not the top of some hierarchy. It’s rhizomatic. It’s everywhere beneath the surface, all places at once. Truth, then, in our radical re-definition of the word, becomes a process. Truth is the absolute re-alignment of a life with this radical newness, this truth of the void. Truth is no longer an achievement of knowledge, but rather a measure of fidelity.

This very process of being true to newness – is Truth.

ALAIN BADIOU: Indeed, Truth is a process of fidelity. Being true to the evental void means becoming a subject of Truth.

FELIX GUATTARI: Truth is a multiplicity-singularity. It is a thousand outward movements.

JACQUES LACAN: Truth is the subject’s identification with the sinthome, the world’s inconsistency as seen through the fissure of reality.

GILLES DELEUZE: Truth is an infinite becoming. It is perpetual beginning.

JACQUES DERRIDA: Truth is the line of paradoxical indistinction that both renders all meaning unstable, and also constitutes meaning as such.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Truth is fidelity to the evental void. It is the truth of the Shade and the darkness of its caves.

In that case, let us return again, then, to the beginning – to Plato’s cave. The question we began with: What does it mean to turn inward and dive into the abyss? What unknowns can we hope to discover with our third option – descent into the belly of the cave itself?

The answer, both incredibly complex and decisively simple: The Void.

Ours, then, shall be an enlightenment through darkness, a Shadow-Truth. Plato, see, he exited the cave and was blinded by the sun; he saw only death. We, on the other hand; we plunge into the endless depths, and analogically, dive deep into the void within our own chests. Our “enlightenment” is that event, the becoming of light itself. In the blackness of the Shade we need no light – purely, we are light.

If I may be so extravagant in my conclusion, let me draw a final diagram:

This is the cave-structure of life, which represents how the void is at either limit of existence, either extreme of Being. The void, see, is both the largest unit (the Real, the inconsistent multiplicity, the pure potentiality of ability-to-select), and the smallest unit (the operation of the count, the universal inclusion through emptiness, the darkness within our own hearts). The void is thus both the sun outside of the cave (seen here as “death” outside of language), and the blackness inside its belly (the unknown core of our identities at the pit of its abyss). Leaving the cave is to die. But to dive into yourself – that is Truth.

Therefore, we have traced a path from the Truth of Death to an ethics of the void, which is a Living Truth. This is a radical new outlook on Truth. This Truth, we have seen, is the void, the very commonplace foundation of everyone and everything. Death is still an encounter with the void; death is still Truth. But now we also have a Truth that is attainable during life; this Truth is radical newness itself; and this leaves us with a new ethical imperative: “Do not give up on the void. Be faithful to that part of yourself you do not yet know. Bring newness into the world. Shatter knowledge; live Truth.”

ALAIN BADIOU: One final rhetorical question: What does it take to maintain these ethics? What does it require of us, since fidelity is not a matter of knowledge?

My answer: Truth is not the work of an expert: it is the work of a militant.

SEBASTIAN HEIM: Then let us be the revolutionaries of unspeakable newness. Our fidelity will be pointed toward the unfathomable within ourselves, the pure precipice of our becoming. Let our laughter pour into its abyss.

Hölderlin, the poet, once wrote, “From the abyss, namely, we began.”

It seems as if Nietzsche was writing in direct response when he stated, “One must have wings, if one loves the abyss.”

Let us grow wings, then, for we, as beginners, love the abyss. For we, as miners, dive into the belly of the cave; as artists, we use our steady hands to trace flight patterns of newness; as lovers we build evental spaces with the raw material of our flesh; as philosophers we enter into processes of fidelity to Truth; and, as revolutionaries, we stare fearlessly into the violence of the void, standing at the precipice of its terrifying beauty, the sublime, the unspeakable, the nameless, the unknown, the new: The Shade.

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minutor sacer.

Phillip Tribe kept a library in the Shade. Within its stacks he collected unpublished manuscripts written by each revolutionary thinker who was marginalized to the shadows. Many referred to it as the Shade’s very own “Library of Babylon.” But to Tribe, it was much more than that. It was an ethos. A movement. It contained within it the truths that would carry humanity into the future. To Tribe, it was an arc.

The library contained every note, outline, sketch, essay, and book written by Sebastian Heim. Tribe had absolute faith in the visionary direction Heim was leading the world. He was obsessed with the man’s writings. “These texts are the bedrock, the very foundation on which a new world will find its balance. Read carefully. Every page is a passport.”

Tribe and his husband, Vladimir Schwarz of Tear Theory fame, constructed the library primarily in Heim’s honor. Together, the two men created a haven for radical intellectualism. It became a cultural salon, full of new thought, science, art, music, sexual orgy, and political action. Tribe and Schwarz had no trouble keeping close quarters with the greatest minds of their generation, since every single one eventually flocked to the Shade to bask in Sebastian Heim’s halo. Every word of his, they believed, was a monument to passion, ferocity, and radical newness.

Above all, Heim was a champion of the miners. Few understood his position, but then again, few had the courage to enter the Shade and read the following manuscript. As groundbreaking as it is short, this essay outlines the structural relationship between the miners and sovereignty. It states that biopolitics, by definition, is power over transparent life. Heim uses this notion to prove that there is only sovereign law because humanity has separated and opposed himself to the miners, whom he keeps in the Shade, out of necessity, as an inclusive exclusion.

In Tribe’s words, paraphrasing Heim, “At the center of both our library and the Shade rests a Minotaur. Find it. Wake it from its nightmare. And lead it, by its wrathful hand, straight to the door of Heaven.”

Minutor Sacer
Sovereignty and the Miners

1: The Center of the Labyrinth

We know what the miners are. We can trace their genealogy. Their origin is no longer condemned to shadows. Their ancestors were humans. They were men and women, but then they broke the laws of civilized society. They broke the rules. Suddenly, their citizenship was revoked. Not just from their cities, but from the face of civilization, from the human race. The logic went: The rules of men have been broken, so the rights of men shall be stripped. These criminals were excommunicated from society and cast out into the Shade. This punishment was originally conceived as a form of “clean” death penalty. Outcasts were “returned to nature,” so to speak. Civilized men told themselves that they weren’t “killing” other men, but rather sending fallen organisms back to Mother Earth. It was she who swallowed her young. The state of nature was the violent one, they claimed, not the state of man. Who cares what happens to beasts? Not society. And these men had become animals, exceptions from the human race. Such a subtle disavowal, as we will see, leads to enormous implications.

In the days of excommunication the rules were simple. Law was structured exactly like man’s conception of the planet. The Earth was flat and the Shade was seen as its limit. Back then there was an outside to the world. The spheres of life were believed to be concentric circles. Civilization was the bright, warm center of the world. And the Shade was its dark, forgotten outer edge. By breaking the laws of men, one was simply “cast out.” These criminal transgressors, by being sent outside, were conceptually “removed from the Earth.”

But, as history has shown, this solipsistic view of the world could not have been more backwards. Eventually, the Shade was traversed. Men explored the “outer” reaches of the Earth only to come out on the other side. Our planet suddenly became a globe. The two halves of the world were united and the excommunicated outcasts, long thought dead, were rediscovered. They were alive, yes – but changed. Having lived so long in the “state of nature” they had truly returned to nature – they had become animals. Regressive evolution turned them into beasts, their humanity finally stripped from their bodies like so much penance for their crimes.

It is important to note that these creatures were not discovered at the ends of the Earth where they had originally been sent, but rather at its very heart, at the interior. When the two hemispheres joined, the Shade suddenly became the center of the world – the empty center. This is a radical truth. Understanding “a system with an empty center” requires a firm grasp on the paradoxical logic of indistinction. These excommunicated criminals, those creatures that were stripped of their humanity and therefore not quite man, but, who were also unswallowed by Mother Earth and therefore not quite animal, were, in fact, not excluded to the outside, but were rather imprisoned on the inside. Simply put – they were excluded inclusively. This paradox of the “inclusive exclusion” is essential for understanding the nature of power.

There is an ancient myth that tells a similar story of animal-men being imprisoned on the inside. This myth is the story of the Minotaur. It goes like this: To help his rise to power, King Minos gave an oath to the gods that he would sacrifice an animal. In response, the gods produced a magnificent white bull, which rose out of the sea so Minos could complete his rite. Yet, King Minos found the snowy creature too beautiful, so he broke his sacred promise and kept it alive. Such a transgression angered the gods. Out of retribution they cursed his wife, Pasiphaë, to fall madly in love with the animal. Smitten with lust, the queen was beside herself. She knew that somehow she would have to fulfill her desire. So, with the help of Crete’s master craftsman, the queen was given a wooden cow within which she could lie prostrate. It was placed out in the fields and the clever ruse worked. The bull was tricked. It mounted the machine and copulated with Pasiphaë. Nine months later the “Minotaur” was born – a word that simply means, “Bull of Minos.

This creature, being the impossible child of a sacrificial beast and a queen, remained completely outside of definition. It was not quite man. It had a muscular human body, yes, but could never become civilized with such a horrifyingly grotesque face. Nor was it a wild animal. Sure, it had the horns of a bull, but it spoke and cursed and spit with the agony of a man. Thus, it was half of each but also neither. It was everything animalistic about man while also being everything uncannily anthropomorphic about animals. The Minotaur was an inconsistency. It was a contradiction in terms. Most importantly, this paradox was the product of forbidden love with a god disguised as a bull, and therefore constituted the transgression of divine law. It was a curse upon humankind. By revealing the animal in man, the creature revealed itself to be excessively human – as the kernel of animality that lies hidden in all men. In order to hide this monstrosity, Pasiphaë called upon her master craftsman once more. Daedalus, the architect, the artist, was entreated to make a prison fit for such a contradictory creature. So, he constructed a gigantic labyrinth near the royal palace. It was there, at the very center of the maze, that the Minotaur was imprisoned.

The banishment of the creature within the labyrinth is a curious and important gesture in the history of power. There, the Minotaur was positioned in a state of “inclusive exclusion.” To understand this contradiction, the beast must be fully grasped for its paradoxical nature. It was both man and animal. Both sacred and cursed. Both human law and divine transgression. Therefore, at this intersection, the Minotaur was a creature of absolute indistinction. Exile within the center of the labyrinth, therefore, was the only possible solution for such a creature – it had to be both inside and outside simultaneously. This paradoxical logic has a semantic president in Roman etymology.

2: Sacred and Dammned

Sextus Pompeius Festus was a Roman lexicographer and etymologist writing during the second century AD. His only surviving tome was entitled “On the Meaning of Words.” Although it only survives in pieces, it proves to be an essential glossary of Latin definitions. To us, these descriptions can provide a window into the foundational logic of antiquity.

Under the curious heading “homo sacer,” Festus writes:

The sacred man is the one whom the people have judged on account of a crime. It is not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide; in the first tribunitian law, in fact, it is noted that “if someone kills the one who is sacred according to the plebiscite, it will not be considered homicide.” This is why it is customary for a bad or impure man to be called sacred.

At once this logic is paradoxical. What does it mean to allow someone to be killed but not sacrificed? How can a man be condemned to death, but only by chance, never by rite? Could it be that the death of the exile has the capacity to dirty God, but not the hands of men? Who is so unclean that God would have to cast him out of his kingdom? Who first, who last? Yes, perhaps that is the logic – “homo sacer” is the fallen creature. He is the sacred angel without wings who, like Satan himself, could never dream to rise, never back to heaven, but rather, instead, he is condemned to the Earth, and may be killed thousands of times over, his blood eternally reanimating like some filthy phoenix, the whipping boy of humanity, that lie, that first exile, the exception by which God originally constituted moral law. Where could such a man live? Where, exactly, is hell? Is it outside? Or is it inside?

Perhaps it is neither and both. This man, our “homo sacer,” lives at the intersection between worlds, that line of indistinction between good and evil, God and Devil, heaven and hell, and is, therefore, at once entrapped in human law, which we shall call sovereignty, while also remaining outside of divine law, which we shall call death.

Again, let us return to the complex meaning of words as our guide. How exactly does “sacer” translate? Not surprisingly, its translation from Latin is paradoxical. “Sacer” means both “hallowed” and “damned.” It is an adjective that encapsulates both the God-like and the Devil-like. It is at once double-meaning, both itself and its opposite; it is “both” and it is “neither.” It is inside and simultaneously outside. We originally turned to this word for clarification on the law – “what can ‘sacer’ teach us?” we asked, “and where does the distinction between good and evil lie?” A naïve question from the start, because such distinguishability does not exist. The logic of “sacer,” as its history shows, is a divine logic that existed prior to the split between good/evil, either/or, both/neither. Here we cannot depend on binary law. For paradoxical indistinction is the only origin, and it is an origin that is at once a non-origin: the empty center. This contradiction, it turns out, is the very lesson “sacer” proposes to teach. “Sacred is the paradox,” it says, “of the creature imprisoned within the inclusive exclusion.”

This contradictory prison sentence was the exact fate of our Minotaur: to be damned to a hell of binary indistinction. As we saw earlier, the beast was excommunicated to the inside, to the center of the labyrinth. Out of structural necessity, following the paradoxical logic of the law of “sacer,” the beast’s exile had to be an inclusive exclusion. Killed, but not sacrificed. It was nothing less than sovereign power that made this necessary, obligatory precisely because the Minotaur was no-thing, neither a man nor a beast. From the day of its birth it was caught in the logic of the paradox, and only then, from there, could such a contradictory logic keep it at bay. The Minotaur was placed both outside the laws of God and inside the laws of society – able to be killed but not sacrificed, simultaneously hallowed and damned, condemned to be a victim of the world’s violent inconsistency. This horrible fate rings true today. As there is another creature, just like the Minotaur, caught in this realm of indistinction.

For what creature in our world is both no-thing and no-where? What creature is caught in the laws of man but not in the grace of God? What creature litters the Earth like the fallen wings of so many devils? What creature could ever be so unclean? The answer lives between worlds – it is a beast that lies in wait at the empty center: the Shade.

It should come as no surprise that the Latin word for miner is “minutor.” For us, today, it is not “homo sacer” we speak of, but rather “minutor sacer” – the sacred miner. For today, under our laws, it is the miners who are both hallowed and damned. The miners are trapped in the paradoxical logic of sovereign law. The same rules apply now as they did a thousand years ago. And it is more than coincidence that “minutor” is a homonym for “Minotaur.” The miners are our Minotaurs. They are our sacred creature that, just like the mythical beast, is both half-animal and half-man, both naked human life and disavowed animal nature, both, and neither.

And just like the Minotaur, our “minutor sacer” is imprisoned within the labyrinth of the Shade – they are excommunicated to the inside in an inclusive exclusion. The miners are indeed sacred. But let us not speak of religion but of politics. Our laws state that the miners can be killed indiscriminately by the hands of capital. But they cannot be sacrificed by any political movement, which is to say, they can never achieve class consciousness. Our world depends on the miners never acting in their own collective self-interest. This is the wager of modernity. Moving forward we see that the miners, as “sacer,” as the exception to the rule, become the paradoxical figures that, out of necessity, constitute sovereign law. This is the new form of global politics. Not policy over social interaction, but rather power over transparent life itself.

3: The Biopolitics of Sovereignty

“Minutor sacer” stands as the original political relation precisely because it represents the rule that is at once its own exception, i.e.: the sacred creature that can be killed but not sacrificed. When the miners were excommunicated they were stripped of their humanity and cast off into the shadows. When this happened they lost everything. They lost their claims to both the animal kingdom and the world of men – all that was left was their claim to life. They were alive, but just barely. They had become transparent life. And it was there, at the empty center of the Shade, that they were found again. When the miners were rediscovered their face of their prison changed, no longer just a labyrinth, they were now forced into slavery within the maze. The Shade had become a concentration camp. With this gesture humankind drove the miners back into the politics of man (a politics, it should be noted, from which they were still excluded – but, like all things paradoxical, inclusively excluded). Suddenly transparent life had become politicized. Politics became biopolitics, a term that means, quite simply, “the direct application of political power onto naked life.” It was here, with the biopolitics of the miners, that sovereignty finally found its case study.

To fully comprehend sovereignty one must first understand the logic of the exception. Not unlike the paradoxical indistinguishability of “sacer,” the exception also has an origin that is at once a non-origin. In law, just like in language, expressions are only differential. This means that they exist without positive terms. Exceptions do not arise. Nor do rules emerge. Exceptions and rules first appear simultaneously in negative difference. Rather than having positive content, terms are only negatively related to other terms. They are only what others are not. This means: there was never a singular origin. For example, raw meat never existed before cooked meat. There was only just plain “meat.” Applying the word “raw” would be extraneous and incomprehensible. It wouldn’t make sense. But, at the precise moment the meat was cooked, two antagonistic terms simultaneously sprung into existence – raw/cooked. This double origin is the logic of negative difference. Exceptions and rules are no different.

Instead of rules being established in an ideal vacuum from which exceptions can later arise; rather, both terms appear simultaneously, paradoxically constituting each other as valid. In other words, exceptions are not subtracted from rules. Instead, the rule, in a constituting gesture, calls forth its own exception to give itself identity. The rule then keeps the exception nearby so it can always be in relation to it. This proximity is essential, since the rule can only remain legible and comprehensible through the principle of negative difference. For example, one rule states: “Thou shall not kill.” Just like raw meat, this term is only comprehensible when paired with its opposite term: the exception – killing. This may sound overly complex already, but there is one more twist. Just like the lesson we learned from “sacer,” there is a third term, “the law,” which can only be found at the very line of indistinction between the previous two terms.

Sovereign law, therefore, is the logic of negative difference precisely at the line of indistinction between the two terms of rule/exception. This can be proven by returning to our example.

  1. Rule: “Thou shall not kill.”
  2. Exception: “One man kills another.”
  3. Law: “It is illegal to kill, but the law may kill in order to constitute itself as sovereign.”

Therefore, the line of paradoxical indistinction teaches us: Sovereign power is the exception to its own rule.

Thus, sovereignty only exists because of the paradoxical logic of “minutor sacer.” This is the exact reason why the miners are entrapped within biopolitics – the miners, as the exception, have been separated off from the rule of men in a constituting gesture. Out of the necessity of negative difference, the miners are kept in close relation in the inclusive exclusion of the Shade. It is only through this relation that man may have his own identity. We have a political life because the miners are transparent life. The problem is, as we have shown many times over, this binary opposition is unstable and threatens to explode in a brilliant excess of paradoxical inconsistency. Yes – an explosion, a contradiction, a singularity, like the tear in space above our heads. It is here that opposites combine:

  • Sacred/Damned –> (Miners)
  • Man/Animal –> (Minotaur)
  • Inclusion/Exclusion –> (Labyrinth)
  • Inside/Outside –> (Shade)
  • Life/Politics –> (Biopolitics)
  • Rule/Exception –> (Sovereignty)

4: Transparent Life

Sovereign power exists only because man has separated the miners off from himself while simultaneously keeping the creatures in a relation of negative difference via inclusive exclusion. Because of this logic, which is also the paradoxical logic of “sacer,” the Shade has become the most overt sphere of biopolitics in the history of the world. Here, sovereign power confronts the miners unmediated. They are naked before the twisted whips of capital. Here, the miners instantly become “minutor sacer,” hallowed and damned. They are stripped of everything. They stand before us merely as transparent life. Here, the miners are enslaved by humankind. But these binaries don’t line up. Something happens at their intersection. Paradoxes roam free in the shadows – all lines become lines of indistinction and inconsistent multiplicity. In the Shade, all men become miners. In the Shade, all law becomes violence. And in the Shade, all paths become labyrinthine. In the Shade, all thoughts become madness.

When religious men and women, on that fatal day, flew to their deaths it was deemed “The Rapture.” They were able to sacrifice themselves to their God because they were free, clean, sovereign creatures. The miners, however, cannot enjoy a similar fate. Martyrdom is structurally denied to them. There is no death for that which cannot be killed. No sacrifice for that which is fallen. The miners are the dangerous supplements to the world – simultaneously in peripheral excess of man while also lying at the core of his disavowed internal essence. As supplements, the miners live paradox. They produce what they forbid: Ikaros. They make possible the very lives that make them impossible: political life.

So what is to be done? Should the miners be set free and released out into the Sun? No, transparent life cannot exist in the light. Should we take pity on the miners and exterminate them? No, as sacred creatures they deaths mean nothing. Should we awake their class conscience and give them a political life of their own? No, the inclusive exclusion would structurally implode, making all creatures slaves.

Then what is to be done? What are the miners, exactly? Now that we can see their history stretching before us like a roadmap, where do we go? Transparent where we are not, only through them can we see the true face of our humanity: nothing.

“Minutor sacer” lives the paradoxical truth of our own lives – there is no outside. Humans are just man/animals imprisoned in an endless, shifting, jet-black labyrinth. The Shade is now open. Above our heads the void yawns like an eternal abyss. Long is the way, and hard. For there is no way out. There is only up.

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on madness and art.

Brown University Press published the book Hypotheses on Rapture in 1959 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the World’s Fair tragedy. The volume was edited by renowned thinker Phillip Tribe, then a critical-theory professor at the university. The book collected essays penned by a selection of philosophers, scientists, politicians, writers and artists, all carefully curated by Tribe for their diverse stances on the subject.

Sebastian Heim’s contribution, although brief, made the book an instant controversy. In a series of 30 aphorisms, Heim argued that the mass suicide of 80% of the world’s population, rather than be condemned, should be celebrated as performance art.

Tribe fought for the inclusion, a bold move that crushed his favor in academic circles, forcing him into intellectual obscurity.

Sebastian Heim

1.
god himself fell.

2.
god lost his neutrality when he fell into the world. the rapture marks the end of religion precisely because of this fall. no longer an idea nor an absolute limit, god became mortal. he came to earth on the wings of judgment – to judge man amongst men. the rapture, properly speaking, was the brutal intrusion of justice itself. it was beyond law. it was law-destroying.

3.
the rapture was an act of divine violence. it was a boundless act. it struck out against man. yet, the ultimate victim of this violence was the creator himself. the rapture was god committing suicide. it was destruction as violent creation. it was the demise of the concept of death. god erased himself so a new order could arise. this new order is nothing less than the order of man as a universal being.

4.
the rapture was an event. an event, simply defined, is an encounter with the universal. what happened at the world’s fair was the rise of universality out of the particular. it was a breakthrough, an authentic moment of immortal discovery. god died as a mortal so man could live as immortal.

5.
the rapture, as an event, was not for anyone. it was not caused by anyone. the rapture was truly for-itself. it can only be experienced as an authentic universal gesture.

6.
as such, the rapture was the first truly political act. it rendered the unthinkable thinkable. it changed the field of the possible. it pushed the limits of feasibility and conceivability. nothing will ever be the same.

7.
yet, the rapture was also an act of terrorism. it was political violence directed against the status quo.

8.
one can never attack the capitalist system with direct force, because the system itself dictates the terms; it is the battlefield. one must never challenge an enemy in his own arena. thus, the genius behind the rapture was its shift from force to symbolism. there is nothing the system can do to an enemy who has turned his very death into a weapon. the rapture, therefore, suicided the world.

9.
the result of this suicide was the radicalization of the world – to create a human singularity in the face of the ring’s singularity.

10.
the rapture came as no surprise. it was expected. it was wanted. the rapture was the world’s obscure object of desire.

11.
this desire was for the eradication of mortality along side with morality. the rapture succeeded. there is no more good nor evil. for how can there be in the face of freedom? as such, the rapture was the first true act of universal freedom. it was a pure act of autonomy.

12.
the hypothesis that man, free man, should always choose good over evil, is not freedom at all – it is rather submission to slavery. true freedom is the ability to abuse freedom, to make excessive use of it.

13.
freedom must always be violently excessive.

14.
now, finally, as free men and women, we are alone. we are the daughters of violence. we are the sons of madness. the rapture is our only father.

15.
before the rapture we lived in a world without certainty. the ring was up for debate. heaven? event horizon? ship? in a single day all of that changed. the void is now our only certainty.

16.
what is at stake in this certainty is the symbolic itself. the rapture was an image. it was filmed. it was photographed. it was performed. our visual language has been forever changed.

17.
as a visual gesture, the rapture was performance art.

18.
art, at its best, is evental. art strives to elevate the particular to the level of the universal. art violently strives to leap out of security, out of what is taken for granted, to change the limits of the possible and open into a new world. without the creation of a new world, art is nothing.

19.
the rapture has left us open to this new world. such an opening was previously unthinkable. the rapture was impossible before it happened. humanity is finally in the open.

20.
therefore, the rapture should be celebrated as the greatest work of performance art the cosmos has ever seen.

21.
with its aesthetics of ascent and collective movement, the rapture was visually and conceptually stunning. a thousand years of human history had been mere rehearsal for that moment. all those minds in concert achieved something in that act – a collective gesture – a decision – a yes. such a yes was a yes to chaos.

22.
art is not order from chaos, but rather chaos as such. art enunciates the unselected multiplicity. art is void. chaos is thus the battle cry of the artist. without this possibility, art is nothing.

23.
the rapture, as chaos, as performance art, as event, was thus a mad festival. it was a carnival. all gods died in the rapture except for dionysus. he was too drunk from celebration.

24.
the rapture marked the return of the dionysian.

25.
the victory of art, therefore, belongs to neither god nor the devil. it belongs to madness.

26.
madness is art’s truth. it is the frontier that must be traversed. it is the very limit of the imagination, of man’s capacity for reason. madness is at once sublime and beautiful. it is a becoming. madness is man becoming god to fill the void of his absence. madness is the ultimate goal of the artistic gesture – creation from the void. artists must be faithful to this truth. yes. it is madness to be faithful to an event.

27.
art, then, at its best, is faithful madness. it is the destruction of everything known for the sake of the true. it is an apocalyptic vision. to gaze upon the rapture, as a work of art, is thus madness itself. this is the point.

28.
man can now see. madness is evental vision.

29.
the narrative is thus: god is dead. he committed suicide in a law-destroying act of divine violence. this death opened man to the immortality of the universal. this violent gesture was a truly political act, an act of freedom. it was an event because it changed the face of the possible. it gave man access to truth. as such, the rapture was the greatest act of performance art the cosmos has ever seen. this victory was madness. it was dionysian. everything changed. yet the rapture was merely act one. the potentiality of the void is now open. man finally has vision. and the madness of its truth shall soon rain down upon the heads of men.

30.
there is not enough madness.

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new work (A History of Greece).

What is the subject of truth’s relationship to the encyclopedic?

And if one is faithful to a truth, how does its process sculpt everything? What is the structure of its fidelity, and what attributes does it possess? And continuing this logic forward – what form does collective subjectivity to a truth process take?

And I’m not talking representationally. I don’t want a piece of art to “look like” this process. Nor do I want it to be an abstraction of its terms. There must be a third pole. It goes like this: it exists.

The Invisible Committee writes, “A truth isn’t something we hold but something that carries us” (The Coming Insurrection, 97).

This process of “being carried by a truth” has a structure, a form, and most importantly, a history. This history, then, has a material existence. It is something. It is books, printed language. It is windows and reflections. It is cloth and it is metal. It is burning. It is color.

On March 17th, two new wall-mounted sculptures were featured in a group show in Venice, CA at the Westminster Space. These new works were contextualized alongside a past, companion piece, Suspended Rebar.

Paul Wallace's "A History of Greece" at the Westminster Space

These two new pieces engaged this process of “being carried by a truth” in two  different ways: one narratively, and one materially.

A History of Greece

A History of Greece compresses truth’s relationship to the Western tradition into a single term: the subject. What is the subject of a truth, on a sincere, psychological level? For me this means – what is my relationship with my tradition?

"A History of Greece" - by Paul Wallace

Not, “how do I break with my tradition,” but rather, “how can I produce truths within the fissures of my tradition?”

The story goes like this: I exist within the mythologies of the West. Its language is my language; its history, mine. Yet there is a lens, at once transparent and reflective, that is suspended above the encyclopedic. This lens is my truth process. Its suspension is my work. Like a magnifying-lens in the sun, this window burns the printed page. Its inferno pries open the fault-lines of the text, loosing the void at the very heart of language.

"A History of Greece" - detail

The true history of Greece, then, is this capacity for obliteration – the capacity to open up newness within the ancient.

"A History of Greece" - detail

A History of Greece is ancient Greek history-book pages wallpapered onto board, measuring 3 feet by 3 feet. 90 degree bent rebar is secured to the four points of the compass. A piece of glass, 1 foot by 1 foot, is suspended above the surface of the pages by four segments of plaster-soaked linen cloth. Beneath the glass, the pages are burnt.

"A History of Greece" - side view

Suspended Rope

Opening up the project begun with Suspended Rebar, this new piece speaks to a collective form. No longer is each color or each rebar isolated. Suspended Rope brings yellow, green and orange together. It presents three ropes, each gripped by each color.

"Suspended Rope" by Paul Wallace

The strength of its form is heightened by its collective sensibility. While rebar remains a structural element, rope is an intersubjective one. It speaks, on a formal level, towards collectivity.

Thus, Suspended Rope addresses the potential of intersubjectivity within materialism – both the power and the strength of collective gesture, made from a standpoint of the pure bodily, the pure of building material.

"Suspended Rope" - side view

Suspended Rope consists of a 30 inches by 30 inches segment of drywall contained within a wood frame pained with white house paint. Three segments of rope are suspended above the drywall by three strips of linen cloth. The cloth is soaked in plaster and colored with stucco house pigment.

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agrarian commune in the mountains.

Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged

Atlas Shrugged is a masterpiece.

I truly believe this, despite its overwhelmingly inequitable characterizations and unfortunate incompatibility with reality. Even more so, many critics overlook Rand’s profoundly powerful worldview because of the book’s proposed, fervent ideological stance towards capitalism. I use the word “proposed” because, as I will outline below, I believe her philosophy stands in stark contrast with many of things it attempts to support. Rand’s critics, therefore, seem unable to look past its sound and fury. They ignore the book’s bold perspectives on achievement, pride, responsibility, value and equity all because of real capitalism’s structural inequalities and exploitative nature.

Leftist thinkers should flock to this book. Her characters are Nietzschean, her belief in man is Kantian, her stance on feminism is Beauvoirian, and her fidelity to the Idea is Badiouian. Yet, thinkers like Zizek claim that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is the closest thing we have to a “Capitalist Manifesto” (In Defense of Lost Causes, 458). I will argue that Rand is, in fact, more Zizekian that Zizek is himself.

Also, the values proposed in Atlas are actually in conflict with really-existing-capitalism – but that is an argument for another day. Instead, here, I will briefly outline how Rand’s book is actually, wildly post-capitalist.

In fact, Atlas Shrugged is a communist parable.

Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged" - a communist parable

In three points, here’s how:

  1. The character of Francisco is a Zizekian leftist, par excellence.
  2. The narrative circulates around a mass strike against exploitation.
  3. The collective utopia created is literally an agrarian commune in the mountains.

Francisco as Zizekian Leftist

In Violence, Zizek addresses the structural contradictions of liberal actions, specifically charity. He writes, “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation… developed countries “help” the undeveloped with aid, credits, and so on, and thereby avoid the key issue, namely their complicity in and co-responsibility for the miserable situation of the undeveloped” (22).

Zizek calls those who drive Priuses, give to charity and eat organic food the “exemplary figures of evil today” because their actions are doing nothing but postponing capitalism’s final crisis, and thus perpetuating the very system that causes global warming, poverty and food inequality (27).

Thus, a Zizekian, radical leftist would look past this “humanitarian mask” and work to bring the system itself down. We want to give to charity, yes. But the quickest way to end equality, however cold and un-humanist, is to never give, but remove. A Zizekian radical leftist thus drives a Hummer in order to use up all the gas as fast as possible, burns his money to disrupt capitalist exchange, and only eats Doritos and drinks Coke, to become a obese, unproductive body.

Zizek’s proposal is un-realistic and extreme – but it makes its point loud and clear: the problem is the system – bring it down fast.

In Atlas, there is literally a character that does this. Francisco d’Anconia had the potential to become the world’s most productive, wealthy man. Instead, he becomes a useless playboy. He spends all his time wasting his money on parties and bad investments. He squanders his copper mines and drives them into complete unproductivity. The world sees him as a harmless waste of life, because he is a product of their system. But within only 12 years, he has collapsed everything.

After a disastrous mining investment, he says, “Of course, ‘investment’ is a relative term. It depends on what you wish to accomplish. For instance, look at [my failed mining investment]. It cost me fifteen million dollars, but these fifteen million wiped out forty million belonging to Taggart Transcontinental, thirty-five million belonging to stockholders… and hundreds of millions which will be lost in secondary consequences. That’s not a bad return on an investment, is it” (124).

Francisco’s investment is thus the destruction of capital – his project is to speed the collapse of the capitalist system itself. He dedicates his life to bringing that system down from the inside, and does so only by using its own mechanisms.

He is thus a radical liberal, and a true embodiment of Zizek’s ideals.

The Strike

My next point is thematic: Atlas Shrugged is about a strike.

A group of industrialists believe that they are being exploited, so they literally go on strike – physically and intellectually. The point of a strike is to curtail production until the system of exploitation is remedied. This is exactly John Galt’s plan. The great minds of the world simply stop producing anything. Their strike quickly collapses the current capitalist system, a system of exploitation, and a new, revolutionary order is allowed to begin.

Galt is the Marxist character of the book. His global strike is nothing short of a revolution. Marx writes about capitalism’s need to not just produce, but also to simultaneously reproduce the means of its own production. What this means is: capitalism can’t just make stuff, but it has to continually work to keep itself situated as necessary. It has to remain irreplaceable – ideologically, socially, psychologically, etc.

Galt’s strike aims to destroy the system’s very means of reproduction: minds. Galt, Francisco and Ragnar don’t just strike, however. Theirs is a strike/revolution. Galt steals all the men and women of great minds from the world, thus striking. Francisco, as discussed above, brings the system down from the inside. All the while, Ragnar violently revolts against the system, literally becoming a revolutionary. All three thus resist their own production. They consume counter-productively, and all the while, work to reproduce the very means of the revolution.

Marx writes that capitalism “reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited” (Capital, 723). And it is thus Galt’s goal to end this system of exploitation by not just striking and ending the system of production, but by actively reproducing the very means of revolution.

Agrarian Commune in the Mountains

This final point makes itself:

Galt establishes an agrarian commune in the mountains.

All the titans of industry, from banking magnates to oil barons, move to the mountains of Colorado and start farming. They grow all their own food, produce all their own electricity, and are completely self-sustainable. The judge becomes a dairy farmer. The banker grows wheat and tobacco. The composer tends an orchard. Every man and woman has a job and a place, each carries his or her own weight, and each uses his or her specific skills to enrich the entire mini-society. And on top of this – they all must farm.

This “Atlantis” is a post-capitalist utopia of classless exchange. Everything is in perfect harmony. All producers meet on equal terms. It’s incredible, but Rand has realized every communist’s wet dream. And she does so on Marx’s terms: the evolution of capitalistic exchange into communist society.

Galt’s endgame, then, is to extend this utopia outwards, and make the world into a commune. This vision, combined with his strike and revolution, aim to establish true communism in the world. A very bold move by Rand.

Conclusion

Atlas Shrugged is the story of a collective strike against exploitation and the subsequent formation of an agrarian commune, all by means of collapsing the capitalist system from within. If that sentence doesn’t sound like the possible plot of a lost Eisenstein film, then take another read. Potemkin Shrugged, indeed.

Eisenstein's "Battleship Potemkin"

(March 3rd, update: The above essay is reading Atlas against Rand. In psychoanalysis there is a term – “return of the repressed,” which means: the thing you are trying to psychologically repress the most, by repressing it, will actually return in overabundance, and ultimately undermine everything you try to do. The thing you wished to be gone is now coloring everything and everything you touch. For Rand, this is communism. Thus, Atlas is a massive return of Rand’s repressed.) – thanks for this, Liz!

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