Monday, 8 June 2015

The space(ness) of writing

Writing-as-space is a lucky metaphor; but one that makes apparent the combinatoric nature of inscriptions. It brings about the notion of site, but site as self-contradiction (not as conscious construction but as the result of luck).

To quote Foucault again, to create a network with him, in the sense that he must have had in mind when he talked about the nature of modern space:
“The space in which we live, which draws us out of ourselves, in which the erosion of our lives, our time and our history occurs, the space that claws and gnaws at us, is also, a heterogeneous space. In other words, we do not live in a kind of void, inside of which we could place individuals and things. We do not live inside a void that could be colored with diverse shades of light, we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.”
My question now is: can I see writing behind this definition of space? Is writing “the space in which we live”?
In all appearance, yes: writing is the space in which we live. If this was not apparent after the invention of the press, it has categorically become apparent after the growth of the digital sphere. The digital sphere, itself a space: a space not because it has geographical coordinates but precisely because it is virtual. The virtual nature of the digital is nothing but a technological restatement of the virtual nature of writing tout court.

Of zeros and ones

In this space that is vastly virtual (and therefore real), writing is primarily a means of creating connections and mixing complexities. Here, in the digital universe, writing appears as a juxtaposition of digits. I am not so much interested in the digits (the famous downgrading of letters in relation to numbers) as I am in the juxtaposition that articulates them. The series of 0’s and 1’s that make up the structure of digital texts is capable of creating meaning out of the very operation of mixing and matching.

These 0’s and 1’s, in their glorious simplicity, are suspect companions. Taken separately, they represent the exact opposite of each other. 0 means closed, while 1 means open. With 1, a circuit becomes active; with 0, it becomes inactive (it is said to be either on or off). When seen at their most fundamental, these 0’s and 1’s are, really, instances of life and death. The putting of them together embodies, in one of the many possible ways, Foucault’s assertion concerning heterotopic structures: the fact that they are such that their elements “are irreducible to one another and absolutely not superimposable on one another.”
It is only through the combinatoric function of the digital discourse that 0 and 1 are brought into a state of coexistence. This is what brings about the scandal of meaning, a scandal that governs any semantic instance. See Ferdinand de Saussure’s signs, which are purely arbitrary creations, unlikely bedfellows, just like digits forced to stay together. See the algebraic signs that stand for addition and subtraction (+ and –). See the logical operators that enable the establishment of truth (true and false, yes and no). All of the above are matters of language, and most importantly, matters of writable language.
The binary code used by computers allocates a sequence of bits to every function or operation possible in the computer’s refined and complicated brain. A bit is in itself defined as an either/or situation. A bit (short for ‘binary digit’) is precisely the articulation of this proximity of 0 and 1. Based on this primary distinction between the two values, a magical juxtaposition ensues, one that makes many things possible. One that makes everything possible. Everything that can be worked out by the digital brain.


Writing is, as shown at least by the case of 0’s and 1’s, a space of arbitrariness, where meaning occurs at the conjunction between basic bits (of information, of logic, of computation, of truth). Things that are put together are corralled into signification by force. It is the force of arbitrariness, or of entropy, that makes it possible for writing to turn up at all.
But writing isn’t just a meeting space. It is a site that contradicts its own siteness. It is, in Foucault’s words, a “counter-site.”
Let’s try to explain.
The logic of space is similar to the logic of signification, at least in the Saussurean sense, which doesn’t allow for simultaneity. A sign is a sign insofar as it can be told apart from another sign. (Let’s leave it at denotation and ignore connotation, for the sake of the argument.) In other words, signification tolerates juxtaposition but doesn’t do well with overlapping: signs can stand side by side but not one above the other. The same applies to a space, in the traditional, Leibnizian sense, of “that which results from places taken together” (a precursor to Foucault’s definition of space as connectivity). In order to have space, the world needs places; the network needs nods; planet Earth needs continents linked together by masses of water (or maybe vice-versa, if we were to look for an aquatic reason to geography). But most importantly, in order to have space the world needs places distinguishable from each other.
The overlapping of masses of earth can only lead to geological scandal: to earthquakes and all the catastrophes that come with it. Note, though, that even when it takes place, the overlap is not permanent; at some point, the two masses will return to their initial position, and the earth will go back to its original lack of ambiguity. The overlapping of written signs can only lead to semantic scandal: homography. If two words are spelled identically and yet mean a different thing, they can only mean what they mean depending on context. Without the context (the putting of texts together), there would be either gobbledygook or perplexity.
Language does its best to avoid this state of bafflement. But writing is not bound by the same constraint. On the contrary, writing is precisely the intoxication of language. Writing is the place where language is mocked, where it is made to mean.

The negation of space, the negation of writing

In this process of creation of meaning writing acts out the function of heterotopias, defined by Foucault as
“[sites] that have the curious property of being in relation with all the other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect.”
Heterotopias negate the right of places to be what they have been designated to be. They negate the geological right of two masses of earth to staying beside each other, never over one another. They negate spatiality in the sense of calling into question its relation to distinctiveness, to uniqueness. Hence the example I mentioned last week, of the church, which is not one but many spaces. It is not completely public, nor completely private, but a part-public-part-private conglomerate.

But isn’t that what writing is as well?
Writing is language, in the sense that it would not be possible if it hadn’t always already been inherent in the code of language itself. But at the same time, it is also non-language, in the sense that writing transforms language, so as to render it representable as a series of signs, as a bit string. The 0 and 1 of digital writing is present here again. Life and death, on and off, present and absent, open and closed, writing and language: it’s here again, there again. But it is in writing that this ambiguous distinction/confusion is made possible. It is only writing that relativizes the solidity of language, its apparent non-ambiguity, in order to make itself apparent.