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)

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.


About Paul Wallace

Truth is a process.
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