Waiting for Nothing, the Being of Work


It’s a curious feeling to search for a text for years, only to find you were waiting for it to be written. A little more than a decade ago, I got a job as an art handler. Art handling is an obscure occupation concerned with installing and shipping unusual objects, and it offers ample opportunity to contemplate them as they pass. What is this square of color saying? How was that object made? Perhaps more to the point, given the astronomical price tags in the art world today, what gives these objects their value? Questions like these quickly taught me to look at ordinary objects in a new way, and one day, while holding a dollar bill, I noticed something peculiar: the central image seemed to represent a value beyond the reach of commerce. As I thought about it more, it didn’t seem to matter what the image actually depicted. A bill might show a moral leader or a set of stars or anything else and it would still broadcast the meaning of transcendence. Yet the same note or coin also had a precise design that, as a matter of counterfeit protection, was completely non-representational. After a time, it occurred to me that it should be possible for a coin or note to bear a mark with no content at either level – a mark that was, as Andy Warhol once said (incorrectly) of himself, “deeply superficial.” Not having a vocabulary for what the thought of meaninglessness could possibly mean, I turned to the people who make meaning their livelihood. One thing I discovered is that philosophers couch their concepts in economic terms fairly often. I also found a surprising wealth of references to empty signifiers – in Deleuze, in Laclau, even in Kant (almost), where he refers to a hexagon in the sand. But I wanted something specifically to show that a meaningless sign could exist and yet be purely decorative. It really had to exist as meaningless, even though it would declare itself as nothing. This, of course, is precisely the import of Quentin Meillassoux’s recent Berlin lecture, “Repetition, Iteration, Reiteration,” which takes up the ontology of a meaningless sign, or kenotype. Meillassoux leaves off with the question of how a meaningless sign might remain meaningless when reiterated. Since that’s where I began, I would like to summarize what I’ve been able to develop on the subject, availing myself of the considerable help his work now offers. By my account (and Meillassoux may disagree with me), a meaningless sign is an object without any withdrawn dimension, or what amounts to the same thing, an object that withdraws at an infinite remove. One could say it has only secondary qualities, or sensual qualities — for us. No matter how you think of it, it has no other level, no reference outside itself. It just keeps being its own fact. Strictly speaking, this object would not be a sign, but rather a mark, or what might be termed a deep mark. Such marks, I submit, work to suspend the thought of sufficient reason, because sufficient reason has to think parts, and that which is infinitely presented as itself has no parts to break down. The problem takes on a temporal orientation: thought is considered to operate successively until it can identify differences within an object. Where it cannot separate anything, it encounters an inconsistent multiple, which is what exists outside thought. In this respect, my analysis leads to Meillassoux’s chronics, or what I have been calling nextness. One encounters being through the deep mark, which is ostensibly to encounter hyperchaos, where things could proceed along familiar lines, or, just as possible, turn out to be quite surprising. To come at it from the producing end, one can ask if there is any compelling reason for a given mark to be iterated (or reiterated), and if the mark provides none, one has arrived at meaninglessness. One can then choose to iterate it or not. This procedure bears a striking resemblance to Meillassoux’s principle of unreason, since one loses the basis for choosing in favor of making the mark or choosing against it. One might say that the procedure actually produces choice, since the only thing that happens is that the mark is or is not iterated. For producer and beholder alike, a deep mark will necessarily exist under conditions – after all, it announces its own necessary contingency – and the work done to maintain these conditions I would like to call the work of being, or even the being of work, as opposed to the work of thought. Obviously, the work of being or being of work is not the kind of thing that promises a great onrush of industry and purpose. It doesn’t even have to exist! On the other hand, it doesn’t have to not exist, either, so there is no problem with investigating how it can be applied to specific sets. In fact, it seems to be the case that a deep mark can only lack parts within a defined set. In other words, the set must be restricted in order for something to be enduringly meaningless within it. In the coming days, I hope to have more to say about specific sets in which a deep mark could obtain. For the moment, though, I would like to open the floor to other voices. Meillassouxians do not seem to be a tremendously social lot, but given the chance, they do tend to have their points to make. Two questions, then, just to get the ball rolling: The axiom of choice supposes the existence of non-empty sets in order to make choice possible. What happens, then, if the alternatives are a meaningless mark and no meaningless mark? Are these conditions relevant to the axiom of choice, or have we already started to talk about something else? Meillassoux argues for the absolute existence of hyperchaos, which is the potential of everything, even physical laws, to change or to remain the same. Given that change and continuity can only be distinguished against the backdrop of a uniform succession of time, is it fair to say that hyperchaos is well-ordered? And if so, is it really hyperchaos, or is it only hyperchaos for us? Is it possible to think a generalized hyperchaos that is independent of time?

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