Leaky finitude


/1/ – (In)finity

How is that finitude exceeds infinitude? Exceed is a purposefully sloppy word to choose, it exceeds infinitude in its use-value to put it in inappropriately Marxist terms. Douglas Adams may have explained it best:

“Arthur had a clear idea of what infinity looked like. It wasn’t infinity in fact. Infinity itself looks flat and uninteresting. Looking up into the night sky is looking into infinity-distance is incomprehensible and therefore meaningless. The chamber into which the aircar emerged was anything but infinite, it was just very very very big, so big that it gave the impression of infinity far better than infinity itself” (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, p. 160).

A brief remark on Hegel is necessary here. In Being and Event Alain Badiou makes a very precise remark on Hegel and infinity: “Infinity becomes an internal reason of the finite itself, a simple attribute of experience in general, because it is a consequence of the regime of the one, of the between in which the thing resides, in the suture of its being-one and its being” (p. 163).

Infinity, as the ‘internal reason of the the finite itself’ seems to suggest the Hegelian concept of ‘bad infinity’ discussed in the The Science of Logic. This bad infinity is simply the finite repeated infinitely. Or to put it into Badiou’s terms “the infinite is merely the void in which the repetition of the finite operates” (p. 164). In this case the infinite becomes a void in which the finite ‘fills.’ Good infinity, which Hegel seems to dismiss as mathematical and beyond the material infinite.

Georg Cantor, one of the most pivotal figures in the development of mathematical set theory, discussed the difference between actual and potential infinity. Cantor’s mathematical intervention, showed that infinity was not some vague unreachable entity, but something that could be easily represented and defined mathematically.

/2/ – Finitude’s transcendence

FWJ Schelling, one of those darling German idealists, argued that eternity was some how less than temporality.
In The Ages of the World Schelling, in a wondrous move, argues that the idea of will allows freedom in the finite world as a means of escaping the deadlock of Spinoza’s monism. Schelling sees the concept of eternity as an inert mass that only gains any kind of value by being ‘temporalized.’ (This seems analogous to Hegel’s view of universality, that only through the singular does the universal mean anything).


One might be tempted here to invoke Deleuze in response to show that his own concepts of time and space fit Schelling’s model. One of Deleuze’s arguments (which puts him close to Badiou) was that one cannot just assume difference between things since things located within the same genus have differences from one another. His conclusion was then to recognize how everything is grouped into categories and how everything exhibits internal difference. What is problematic though in reading Deleuze’s philosophy is how he argues towards a univocity of being, the One-all, in which change and difference operates through a kind of folding. It is on this point that Slavoj Žižek and Badiou point out how Deleuze falls back into monism, fatalism and does not give the subject its due justice.

Menger sponge!

To move the conversation away from materiality/space a bit, one could look at the Lacanian subject. As Mladen Dolar points out in his essay “Beyond Interpellation” the psychoanalytic subject emerges at the point where interpellation fails. That is, in terms of the aforementioned internal difference (or what Žižek refers to, via Hegel, as minimal difference) a subject is a subject in so far as it fails to match up with outside determinations. This is why, for Žižek, the ticklish object (the objet petit a) is the parallax object. Not just where one’s view of the object depends upon the subject’s subjective position but with the added theoretical twist that the object being observed has no objective status – the subject’s gaze is always already inscribed in the object itself (The Parallax View, p. 17). So objet petit a, which is a ‘little piece of the real, the rendering positive of a negative gap, is not a thing in itself different from other things but pure difference itself.

This is why it is again necessary to state the importance of the Lacanian real. The real is not thing itself that always escapes the bonds of a particular discourse: it is not a greased pig of language that has a positive existence we are always trying to find. The real is the internal lack, it is the reason why nothing is itself completely. And so the same is true for the subject – our status as subject, as capable of free acts, comes from our ability to fall through the cracks of determinism. The subject then escapes interpellation because interpellation misses some ‘true’ self but because what is misses is nothing, void.

/3/ – Taking oneself seriously

In “The ‘Concrete Universal’ and What Comedy Can Tell us About it” Alenka Zupancic points out how Hegel considered comedy the highest form of art and how this relates to finitude and infinitude. Zupancic discusses how the comedy is the universal at work (Lacan: The Silent Partners, p. 180). Whereas the epic narrates the universal (the abstract infinitely powerful gods) and tragedy stages the universal and the mortals fall short comedy, on the other hand, shows the universal through the very subject. This is evident though the importance of indestructibility in comedy. Everything goes wrong but still….. In true comedies, Zupancic argues, what is funny is not so much that a baron falls in the mud, or slips on the banana peel, but that after he falls that he acts as if it didn’t happen, he keeps going.

One might think of the intricacies in the idea of taking one’s self seriously. Is it funny that someone assumes a role completely, in that they take what they do seriously? But what is the minimal gap here between doing and being, isn’t the same as the good old Lacanian distinction of subject of the enunciated and the enunciation? Isn’t it hilarious when someone ‘pretends’ to be what they ‘really’ are because no one’s really anything? But isn’t the comedic life far better than….what? The postmodern game of ideological distance, of constantly avoiding the gap between what the Thing that speaks and the Thing that is spoken about.

The power of the ‘concrete universal’ is that it is the universal shinning through the particular and this is what speaks to the way in which finitude ‘exceeds’ the infinite. Comedy shows us that our finitude has a leak in it. According to Lacan, this leak has to do with the double effect of the signifier. The signifier introduces us into the signifying chain but at the same time we are stuck, passionately attached to a specific signifier (Ibid., p. 194).

Zupancic writes: “We are not infinite, we are not even finite” (Lacan: The Silent Partners, p. 195).


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