Monday, 1 December 2014

What a rock can teach us about writing

At the beginning of last week I attended the public lecture of Alain Badiou in Auckland. He spoke about things that I find relevant to my obsession: writing. In what follows I will try to rethink his thoughts from this perspective of mine, and see if I'm any good at linking his ideas (which are mostly about mathematics, politics, and arts) to writing. [And just to keep the necessary distance, I must say that this is not a lesson in philosophy. I could not. I wouldn’t dare.]


Badiou's lecture was built around an quote from Jacques Lacan: "The Real is the impasse of formalization." Now, to start with, one will have to recapitulate, perhaps, one's understanding of the Real (not to be confused with 'reality,' which is a different matter altogether).

The Real

The Real, that which resists signification, is what exists anterior, exterior, and independent of the human subject and language. It's what is inexpressible, unsayable, unrepresentable. It is that which we are not even aware of, since it lives outside our awareness as well. But it's there. The Real is always there. It has always already been there. We come upon it by accident (what Badiou calls 'event'). And when we do, we come to a profound and shattering realization: we find out that we have been following the wrong show; that the signs we have created are somewhat inappropriate; not wrong in the sense of mistaken, but in the sense of limited – and limitative at the same time. It's like what happens to a lump of rock when it is turned into a statue. Before the statue there's only the rock. Better still, before the statue there is the mountain with the rock imbedded in it. And this is where the story starts.

Paper, scissors, rock

Before the rock was the mountain, but I don't want to think of this mountain as a finite entity: Mount Rushmore, or Mount Killimanjaro, or Mount Everest, or anything else – take your pick. I want to think of the mountain as something indefinite, something that has no real borders, no limits, something which cannot be put into a category, cannot be turned, for instance, into an object of art; something which, to use a better word, cannot be formalized. Not yet, that is.

Source: Marli Miller
But at some point, from within this mountain, someone cuts out a rock. Or maybe they find it already separated, eroded by natural phenomena and whatnot (it doesn't matter). By separating this rock from the rest of the mountain, this someone has performed an act of signification. He/she has isolated something, removed it, turned it into something with a human purpose, something with a semantic weight. Now it becomes clear that the mountain was anterior, exterior and independent of the human agent. The untouched mountain is a phenomenon over which the human has had no influence yet. Moreover, before the intervention, the mountain contained the rock as a potentiality. In the mountain, the rock has always already existed in this instantiation, as a piece of rock to be taken out.
And so, along the same line of reasoning we can say that, before the human gesture, this rock existed as part of the mountain. The mountain was a multiplicity containing the rock as an element of itself – an undifferentiated one but still there; hidden but there.

Source: Wikimedia

The artist's turn

We can, obviously, go further with this. Our rock, just separated from the multiplicity in which it existed before, is taken to an artist, who wants to make a sculpture out of it. He/she does so, and out of the rock comes a statue. Even more obviously than in the affair of the rock, here too we are dealing with a case of signification. And it's probably easier to see how the statue, the finished, polished, man-made object is, in relation to the rock, what the rock was in relation to the mountain. In the rock, the statue existed as a potentiality. The rock had in itself this special virtue, hidden, not yet brought to light, not yet materialized, of becoming, one day, the statue we are admiring now.
We can say that the rock, in relation to the statue, is something akin to the Real. It is the Real in the sense of being anterior, exterior, and independent of the rock. Anterior in the sense of having existed before the statue; exterior in the sense of being larger than the statue – containing the statue, as it were; and independent in the sense of existing outside of any intention of the statue (if that were even possible) to become an artefact.

Source: GoPixPic
The statue was potential in the rock, but that potentiality becomes apparent only after the artist has finished it. In order for us to have an ‘aha’ moment, we need an artist who has finished his work. So we can say that it is with the event of the statue's coming to life that we realize that it has always already been there, as a possibility, as a virtual materialization.

Events and impasses

Badiou talks a lot about events, which he considers to be the most important (and original, thus far) thing to be said about Being. In Badiou's philosophy, about objects/things (sculptures, for instance) one cannot say that they are. Instead, one has to say that they happen. They are the result of events. And these events offer us glimpses of what the Real might look like. But there's a major aspect to be mentioned here. An event is not a sole possibility. It is only one embodiment, one possibility, out of an infinity of other possibilities.
The point in the case of our statue is this: the piece of rock from which it emerged could have ended up as anything else. As a representation of a dog, as another lump of rock, as chips scattered about, as a block of any shape, as a failed sculpture. It's in this mass of possibilities that we find the complexity/multiplicity of Being (the being of the rock as well as the being of the world). And it's here that we find out the truth about human action: that we, in essence, put a limit to the complexity of the world every time we perform an act of separation (the way we did it in the case of the statue).
So what does it mean to say, with Lacan, that "the Real is the impasse of formalization"?
Formalization is the phenomenon of turning the rock into a statue: the drawing of limits to a thing that appeared, in the first instance, to be infinite. Every time we create something we produce events. But at the same time, we limit the immense field of potentialities that existed in Being. In relation to this, the Real, which presents itself as an incomprehensible surplus, is that which cannot be formalized; cannot be put into forms; cannot be made into objects (of art, of use, of purpose). In other words, it raises an impasse in front of the human agent precisely at the moment when he is engaged in a rapport with the same real. It does so as a reminder. The agent is reminded, with every act of creation, that the Real is an impossibility, that no matter how hard he tries, there’s no way he can attain the Real.
When you know you can't represent the unrepresentable, you are stuck; it feels like there's no way forward, towards further signification (the statue has taken the place of all other possible statues), neither backward (one cannot recreate the rock by putting together all the pieces that made its previous structure). And this is the impasse.

And writing

All of the above can be said about writing as well. Writing operates on language the way the artist operates on the lump of rock. Through writing, things come out of language, which were not imagined before. Words are made apparent when they are turned into written signs. Otherewise, when they are still in the spoke form, they resemble the world too much to pose any major question about their validity. Words thus written represent the formalisation of language. Of course, language too behaves in relation to the world in the way the rock behaves in relation to the mountain: it is not a perfect rendering of the world; it is only a fragmented entity, a being from within Being – a phenomenon that proves the multiplicity of the world and its unrepresentability.
What would writing be without language? A system of signification without a referent. But what would language be without writing! So much more, so more impregnated with itself!