Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Number and the Beast

Quentin Meillassoux’s follow up to After Finitude, Le Nombre et la sirène (2011), seeks to ground his idea of the absolute in the secrecy of numerical code in an elaborate commentary on Stéphane Mallarmé’s (1895) ‘Un coup de dés’ (1895). Through a painstaking task of counting and re-counting the words of the poem, Meillassoux lights upon the number 707 which he finds is both a cipher for the future of poetry and a figure for chance itself. Poised between the ‘7’ that is the sign of chance and the ‘7’ of the classic French alexandrine meter is the 0 that symbolizes the abyss that yawns open in the absence of God, giving way to the eternal contingency of hyperchaos.

Given the question raised by the poem concerning ‘LE NOMBRE’ of the ‘ultérieur démon immémorial’ and its existence, and whether or not it is an hallucination éparse d’agonie, and moreover notwithstanding Meillassoux’s painstaking attempts to count it, this intensely symbolist poem is no doubt also referring to another literary demon. Indeed, not simply a demon but the apocalyptic beast of the sea that is encoded with another number that its author calls on the reader to enumerate: ‘Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666’ (Rev.13:18). A dice throw that did not abolish chance might be one that came up six after six after six, for as Meillassoux insists absolute chance – contingency – has nothing to do with probability (see Meillassoux, 2008: 105). 666. These were the numbers that came up for Francesco Petrarch the poet, with devastating effects. The code for all blasphemy, persecution and evil, for hatred and the apocalypse, is also the code for love and the love of perfection, for Divine form. Is this pure chance?

With reference to Meillassoux’s text, Mallarme’s and others in the canon for whom the numerological drive is central (Dante, Petrarch), this paper speculates on the form and affects of numbers as a particulate system heterogeneous to language. As such it will consider the essential meaninglessness of numbers, whose enigmas yet inflame the amorous intensities of poets, mystics and psychotics. It will also consider how far away this is from the claims made for mathematical knowledge of the universe and its laws, as if algebraic formulae were likewise the means through which God speaks to scientists in His own language. In the absence of God and indeed faith in science, yet giving up on neither perhaps, we can no doubt take number 666 as another sign – not necessarily of contingency, but of that base matter that inhabits the horror of its Idea.

Abstract for ‘Thinking the Absolute: Philosophy, Speculation and the End of Religion’ conference, June 29 – 1 July, Liverpool Hope University, UK. You can register here