The Luminary Postgraduate Magazine Lancaster University

“Un coup de dés”: The Secret History of Poetry — and its Imaginary future

Johanna Skibsrud


The crisis of modern philosophy identified by the thinkers Alain Badiou and Quentin Meillassoux – where a supposed end of absolutes has in fact delivered us to a new form of absolutism – parallels a similar crisis in contemporary poetry. ‘The end of metaphysics,’ writes Meillassoux in After Finitude, ‘understood as the “de-absolutization of thought,” … consist(s) in the rational legitimation of any and every variety of religious (or poetico-religious) belief in the absolute, so long as the latter invokes no authority beside itself’ (45). According to Badiou and Meillassoux, contemporary philosophy finds itself, today, trapped helplessly within a ‘correlational’ loop (After Finitude 7) wherein all meaning is rendered subjective and relative, and the idea of truth is eliminated entirely.1 Contemporary poetry parallels this philosophical crisis. An increasingly entrenched distance divides poetry as an expression of absolute subjectivity and poetry as a ‘truth procedure’ (Badiou Infinite Thought 45). Following Badiou and Meillousaux, I will argue that poetry remains a valuable truth procedure not via its commitment to absolute subjectivity but rather via its commitment to the multiple, linear, contingent, and incoherent events that constitute it.

According to Badiou, a truth procedure is what allows for the possibility of arriving, outside the bounds of subjective experience and more mutable forms of knowledge, at universal truth. Our contemporary privileging of the discourses of math and science, and a simultaneous emphasis on poetry’s role in exploring and expressing only the ‘correlational’ quality of human experience, has led to the radical separation that exists today between poetry and any sense of its increasingly neglected origin as poiesis. Understood in the Greek sense, poiesis is the arrival or ‘presencing’ of that which ‘is not yet’ into what is (Heidegger The Question Concerning Technology 10).2 Or, put somewhat differently, the process by which something ‘passe[s] from nonbeing into being, thus opening a space of truth (ἀ–λήθεια)’ (Agamben 70).

Heidegger was a great champion of poetry in this regard, and toward the end of his career strove to re-establish what he saw to be its proper role as a dominant truth procedure by reconnecting the discipline to its pre-Socratic roots. ‘In poetry, which is authentic and great,’ he wrote, ‘an essential superiority reigns over everything which is purely science’ (quoted in Badiou IT 44).  By promoting one language over another as more ‘authentic’ or ‘great,’ however, and by imagining that poetry might be defined by its etymological roots, Heidegger seems to resist the meaning of poiesis he has worked so hard to recover and endorse. Rather than taking poetry up on its essential openness, Heidegger remains within a regime in which the production of new language always leads back to a singular, ‘authentic’ language. Poetry is understood, in this way, not as a multiple process of language-making, but as the circular reproduction of an imagined, initial state of unified being: the ‘regime of circulation’ critiqued by Badiou (IT 36). Indeed, as far back as Being and Time, Heidegger seems to have given up on the idea of moving outside of this regime at all. ‘What is decisive,’ he writes famously in Being and Time, ‘is not to get out of the circle but to come into it in the right way’ (195).

For Badiou, this is a fatal admission for philosophy. To give up on the desire to move outside the scope of what has already been thought is also to give up on philosophy’s privileged claim to the access of truth. But, in fact, Heidegger is careful to distinguish between the circle from which, he argues, we cannot escape and the ‘regime of circulation’ Badiou argues must be rigorously avoided (Badiou IT 36). ‘This circle of understanding,’ Heidegger writes:

is not an orbit in which any random kind of knowledge may move; it is the expression of the existential fore-structure of Dasein [existence] itself.  It is not to be reduced to the level of the vicious circle, or even of a circle which is merely tolerated.  In the circle is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing (195).

Though it is, perhaps, quite true (as Badiou argues in Infinite Thought and elsewhere) that the thinking of Heidegger and his followers have contributed to the dramatic inward shift in contemporary thought, Heidegger’s emphasis on the circle as that within which is ‘hidden a positive possibility’ of knowing aligns his thinking more closely to Badiou’s and Meillassoux’s than either of these thinkers might readily admit, or suppose. For both Badiou and Meillassoux, the object is not to ‘get out’ of the circle entirely, but – just as Heidegger suggested back in Being and Time – ‘to come into it in the right way’ (195).  Neither thinker argues that a new language must either be invented or discovered, or that any one language: mathematical, poetical, or scientific, should be privileged over any other.  The truth does not, that is, result from language at all: it is hidden within each language, or mode of discourse, equally. It is therefore evident that our object should not be to remain within the circular regime of information, but to discover within it its secret code: a system that, at a deeper level than appears on the surface, constitutes the truth of the coming into being, or ‘presencing’ of being itself. Likewise, our emphasis should not be on ‘the attribution of a superiority of essence for poetry over the mathematical, or over any other type of truth procedure’ (Badiou IT 45), but on the approach to truth itself –which we should understand as ‘hidden’ equally within the discourse of every truth procedure.

Heidegger’s exaltation of the ‘essential superiority’ of poetry is belied by his characterization of the ‘circle of understanding’ as that within which ‘is hidden a positive possibility of the most primordial kind of knowing’ (195, my emphasis). The truth, Heidegger seems to say, is never immediately apparent – never evident, that is, within ‘the proposition’ itself. In order to gain access to the truth, we must use the tools we are given (language, of course, always foremost among them) in order, first, to ‘decrypt’ it. It is through this process of ‘decryption,’ not through the perception of information as it first appears, that truth may be revealed.

‘All thought emits a Throw of the Dice,’ writes Mallarmé in the famous concluding line of, ‘Un Coup de dés Jamais N’Aboliera Le Hasard’ (144).  This is a formula, which, for Alain Badiou, ‘also designates philosophy’ (IT 29). Where Badiou reads this as a point of connection between poetry and philosophy, I would argue that it marks a point of departure. Though poetry is permitted access to the ‘dice-totality’ (Meilliassoux AF 108) of human thought and subjectivity, it is not ultimately bound by any preconceived restrictions to thought or language. It is more apt, therefore – as Badiou does elsewhere – to compare the discipline of poetry to pure mathematics.

Poetry – like mathematics, asserts Badiou – does not understand ‘the meaning of the claim “I cannot know”’ (Theoretical Writings 18). Nor does it ‘acknowledge the existence of spiritualist categories such as those of the unthinkable and the unthought: those categories, which, by this point in our philosophical and literary history, we have come to take for granted as exceeding the meagre resources of human reason’ (TW 16). In short, poetry – like mathematics – retains room within its existing structure for the concept of the infinite; it ‘teaches us that there is no reason whatsoever to confine thinking within the ambit of finitude’ (Badiou TW 18). Because of this, any engagement with poetry, just as any engagement with mathematics, is one that ‘must constantly be reconstituted’ (Badiou TW 18). For both disciplines, ‘the idea of the infinite only manifests itself through the moving surface of its… reconfigurations’ (Badiou TW 18). Both disciplines point ultimately beyond the limitations of the structures (language, number, or subjectivity) they impose. They point beyond, that is, the ‘knowledge’ of what has ‘fallen out’ (the die already rolled) toward the infinite set of possibilities that exist beyond the six-sided die, and any ‘chance’ result that it may, at any time, present. Like mathematics, poetry is a truth procedure directed not toward ‘chance’ (derived from a preconceived and limited set of possibilities) but toward that ‘point of interruption’ that disrupts preconception – a point where thought is ‘surprised’ by itself, in order to become ‘something new’ (Badiou IT 46).

A truth is, first and foremost, Badiou argues, always that:  ‘something new.’ ‘What transmits, what repeats,’ he writes, ‘we shall call knowledge.  Distinguishing truth from knowledge is essential.’ For a truth ‘to begin’ (always anew), ‘something must happen. What there already is – the situation of knowledge as such – generates nothing other than repetition’ (Badiou IT 46).  In order for a truth to guarantee its ‘newness,’ he argues further, there must be ‘a supplement.’ ‘This supplement… is unpredictable, incalculable.  It is beyond what is’ (Badiou IT 46).  This incalculable, always necessarily unexpected ‘happening’ is what Badiou refers to as ‘an event’ (IT 46). ‘A truth thus appears in its newness,’ he writes, ‘because an eventual supplement interrupts repetition’ (IT 46).

In Mallarmé’s posthumous prose work Igitur, which develops many of the themes also found in his famous ‘Un Coup de dés,’ the speaker opposes the realm of poetry and language with the mathematical realm. He announces: ‘Infinity is born of chance, which you have denied. You, expired mathematicians – I, absolute projection. Should end in Infinity.’ Mallarmé accuses mathematicians ‘of denying chance and thereby of fixing the infinite in the hereditary rigidity of calculation’ (Badiou TW 19). What he has failed to recognize, asserts Badiou:

is how the operations through which mathematics has reconfigured the conception of the infinite are constantly affirming chance through the contingency of their recommencement. It is up to philosophy to gather together or conjoin the poetic affirmation of infinity drawn metaphorically from chance, and the mathematical construction of the infinite, drawn formally from an axiomatic intuition. As a result, the injunction to mathematical beauty intersects with the injunction to poetic truth. And vice versa. (TW 19-20)

Poetry and mathematics are aligned, therefore, precisely according to their shared ability and, indeed, obligation to conjoin chance with the infinite.  As Meillassoux has pointed out, the etymologies of both the terms ‘chance’ (from the Vulgar Latin: cadentia) and ‘aleatory’ (from the Latin: alea) refer to the ‘fall’ or ‘falling,’ the ‘dice’ or the ‘dice-throw.’ Within the concept of ‘chance’ resides the notions of both calculation and play, which ‘far from being opposed to one another, are actually inseparable’ (Meillassoux AF 108), united by what Meillassoux refers to as ‘the theme of the dice-totality’ (AF 108). This closed-system thinking, limited from the outset by the ‘unalterable enclosure of the number of the possible’ (AF 108), is exemplified by the six-sided dice. Even if we do not know what will ‘fall out’ with any throw, we know in advance that it will, and can only be, one of six possibilities. ‘Chance,’ then, understood in this sense, unites what might otherwise be mistaken as polarized categories: on the one hand, ‘the apparent gratuity of the game,’ and on the other, ‘the cool calculation of frequencies’ (AF 108).  Contingency, on the other hand (from the Latin, contingere: to touch, to befall) refers us toward a thinking not of that which ‘falls out’ within a set of possibilities that have been prescribed a priori – of that which simply ‘happens’ – but something that finally happens to us. That is, ‘something other, something which, in its irreducibility to all pre-registered possibilities, puts an end to the vanity of a game wherein everything, even the improbable, is predictable’ (Meillassoux AF 108).

It is by following the courses presented to us by mathematics and poetry – those truth procedures that seek to move us ultimately past chance – that we may succeed, finally, in moving past the  ‘throw of a dice’ within which thought itself is, according to Mallarmé, destined to remain. That, through a thinking that promotes an identification of being with contingency rather than mere chance, which therefore ‘continues to be mathematical,’ we may succeed in achieving an approach to thought that, at last, ‘vanquishes quantities and sounds the end of play’ (Meillassoux AF 108).

Rather than relegating truth beyond knowledge and reason, language (that of the mathematician equally to that of the poet) in its ultimate contingency is precisely what gives us access to what Maurice Blanchot has called those ‘alien regions’ (38) beyond us. But where mathematics continues to ‘think the universal,’ poetry, like philosophy ‘can no longer pretend to be what it had for a long time decided to be, that is, a search for truth’ (Badiou IT 35). Like philosophy, poetry has, by and large, given up its former pretensions to a universalizing language. Rightly identifying language as absolutely fundamental to their respective functions, ‘because that is where the question of meaning is at stake’ (IT 35), both poetry and philosophy have made the misstep of focussing solely on the question of meaning at the cost of ‘the classical question of truth’ (IT 35). ‘To accept the universe of language as the absolute horizon of philosophical thought,’ Badiou writes, ‘in fact amounts to accepting the fragmentation and the illusion of communication – for the truth of our world is that there are as many languages as there are communities, activities or kinds of knowledge’ (IT 35).

Similarly, to accept language as ‘the absolute horizon’ of poetry is to accept a poetry that is bound always to the limits of its medium rather than striving for a poetry capable of moving beyond the limitations of its medium toward that which exceeds it.  As Badiou proposes for philosophy, poetry, I argue, must also ‘propose’ or rather, reclaim for itself ‘a principle of interruption,’ by which it might break through and past what otherwise amounts to little more than ‘an endless regime of circulation’ (IT 36). Poetry, like philosophy, must ‘propose a retardation process.  It must constrict a time for thought, which, in the face of the injunction to speed, will constitute a time of its own’ (IT 38). It is this proposed ‘slowness’ in a world ‘marked by its speed’ that will, according to Badiou, allow philosophy to be ‘rebellious,’ to seek out ‘a point of interruption, a point of discontinuity, an unconditional point’ (IT 38). Poetry, I argue, must likewise reconstruct for itself,  ‘with a slowness which will insulate us from the speed of the world, the category of truth – not as it is passed down to us by metaphysics, but rather as we are able to reconstitute it, taking into consideration the world as it is’ (IT 38).  This approach, both to language and being, is – as Badiou suggests – also essential to an ethics capable of resisting ‘an endless regime’ of circulation and cultural relativism, in which anything might be true so long as power and capital can make a strong enough case that it ‘may be’ so.

But what would this point of interruption, or this slowness, look like? What would it mean to take up the ‘fundamental programme of Mallarméan poetics,’ which, as is clearly laid out in Igitur, is to ‘fix’ the infinite? As Meillassoux points out, this is a programme directly opposed to ‘those notions so valorized by modernity, of “becoming” and “dynamism”’ (The Number and the Siren 140). It is a programme that pushes beyond duration and movement, refusing in this way to confine itself to the ‘ambit of finitude’ (Badiou TW 18). It is, I argue, a poetic project par excellence, as understood in the increasingly neglected sense of poiesis, as the arrival or ‘presencing’ of that which ‘is not yet’ into what is (Heidegger QCT 10).It is a project that ultimately pushes past chance toward contingency. That pushes past, in other words, what eventually ‘falls out,’ toward the event of being – an eventthat is, in itself, also a poetic project par excellence: the arrival of ‘what is not yet present’ into ‘presencing’ (Heidegger QCT 10).

This poetic ‘programme’ at the centre of Mallarméan poetics is interestingly illuminated by Meillassoux in his book The Number and the Siren through a meticulous analysis of Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de dés,’ in which – remarkably – Meillassoux proposes a ‘solution’ to the poem. Rather than accepting that the ‘unique number’ Mallarmé mentions (but apparently withholds) in his text be relegated to the realm of the ‘unthinkable and the unthought’ (Badiou TW 16), Meillassoux arrives at an actual number by simply counting the words of Mallarmé’s text. The ‘unique number’ to which Mallarmé must have referred, Meillassoux argues, is specific and nameable: the number 707. In having arrived at an actual number, Meillassoux comes to the further conclusion that the die (which one might otherwise read as remaining in the hand of ‘the Master,’ as in a perpetual moment of indecision, uncast) has, in the poem, indeed been thrown. Crucially, however, Meillassoux argues that this actual number, 707, which functions as the secret ‘key’ to the poem, should not be understood as merely contingent (referring to a probability, as on a six-sided die, outside of itself) but as contingency itself.  The number is ‘unique,’ he insists, only insofar as it manages to ‘abolish Chance’; to, in a ‘unique’ and single act, infinitize itself by incorporating itself into Chance itself. In other words, it is not what has ‘fallen out,’ the number 707, but the poetic processthat gives rise to the number that is infinite. By looking more closely, below, at Meillassoux’s analysis of ‘Un Coup de dés,’ and the relationship between chance and contingency, which the analysis expounds, we may, perhaps, move closer to understanding the integral relationship that exists between poetry and the infinite.

‘Everything is necessarily contingent,’ writes Meillassoux, ‘except contingency itself and the unique act of the Poet who incorporates himself into it – once, once only, and forever. Never again. Nevermore’ (166). To ‘fix’ the infinite is to give up ‘becoming’ in a final, one-time-only actin which poet and poembecome themselves infinite. This is not a mere figure of speech. The combination of two contingencies: on the one hand the poet’s subjective experience, and on the other the language he employs, combine in the ‘unique act’ of the poem, which can no longer be considered bound by finite human experience, reason, or language. The transformation, in other words, is from two finite articulationsof being, to the infinite contingency that is being itself.  The poetic process is not what has ‘fallen out’ (the poem), or what, a priori, we understand as its parameters (human experience, reason and language), but the ‘infinitization’ of all four elements combined in the very work of (from what is ‘not yet’) coming to be. This process is ‘evental’ rather than ‘arithmetical’ (TNS 164); it does not conform to either ‘the apparent gratuity of the game’ or ‘the cool calculation of frequencies’ (Meillassoux AF 108). Accordingly (and though he spends the bulk of The Number and the Siren demonstrating that the ‘unique number’ referred to in Mallarmé’s poem actually does exist), Meillassoux’s conclusion is that the ‘uniqueness’ and therefore the infinity of Mallarmé’s hidden number lies finally beyond the number itself: in the act and uncertainty of its having been arrived at all.

That the identity of the hidden number is uncertain is essential, according to Meillassoux. He does not, that is, overlook the fact that his own ‘discovery’ of the ‘unique’ presence of the number 707 within ‘Un Coup de Dés’ could have resulted merely from ‘chance,’ and not from a meticulous, predetermined effort on Mallarmé’s part.  Further, he admits that even if the number is the result of Mallarmé’s careful calculation (and not only Meillassoux’s, after the fact), an element of chance is necessarily at work in the implementation of the ‘count.’3 Finally, even if we accept that Mallarmé did encode his poem as Meillassoux suggests, we have to accept the remarkable situation that it was only by chance alone that the ‘unique number’ could have been, and then was, eventually discovered.

Notwithstanding that the discovery could be ‘rationalized’ once it has been brought to light, the initial moment [of the discovery] could only emerge from a mere chance, or at best an ‘improbable’ whim… Chance alone had to govern the unveiling of the Number.  It was imperative, consequently, that the latter should be inaccessible to any rational deduction born of assiduous frequentation of the poet’s work (Meillassoux TNS 120).

This means, as Meillassoux acknowledges, that any ‘rational deductions’ made about the code itself, will always be ‘entirely retrospective, produced once the discovery has been made’ (TNS 121). This includes any deductions about the question as to why Mallarmé would have taken the trouble, and ‘risked’ so much in order to incorporate the number. There was, first of all, of course, the risk that the code would never be discovered at all. Second, and perhaps worse, was the risk that, should the number actually bediscovered, the poet would become ‘the object of disdain on the part of the discoverer of the code.’  As Meillassoux points out, ‘(t)he denunciation by future readers of a bogus mystery (‘so it was only that…’) was an intrinsic possibility of an encryption that, in itself, is indeed but a puerile thing’ (TNS 123).

What was at stake for Mallarmé, regardless of how literally one chooses to read Meillassoux’s ‘decryption’ analysis, was the fate of poetry itself. Along with many others of his epoch, Mallarmé was convinced that it was poetry rather than science or any other discipline that should be developed in order to replace the old religions. He envisioned an art that would break so totally with representation that it might achieve the sort of ‘real presence’ attributed, for example, to Christ’s spirit through its incorporation in the Holy Eucharist (TNS 110).

   This ‘real presence’ is one that Meillassoux argues Mallarmé finally achieves on page VIII of ‘Un Coup de Dés.’ In this section of the poem, where we encounter ‘the siren,’ which can also be understood as an allegory for the birth of free verse:

the meter is freed from the code that, after having engendered it, became a fetter on it; and it will be diffused, from the following Page onward, with all the (from now on hypothetical and eternal) force of its being-in-subjunctive (‘IT WAS// THE NUMBER//WERE IT TO EXIST,’ etc.). It will finally be born to itself, buffeted by a chimera that cares nothing for neatly closed counts (195).

One might wonder, at this point, why Meillassoux has gone through all the trouble of finding a veritable number, which he can say with some confidence ‘does exist,’ only to allow that number to finally ‘diffuse’ itself, ‘buffeted by a chimera’ that is ultimately indifferent to its existence. But it is at precisely this point that, Meillassoux claims, ‘the transfiguration of the Master’ takes place:

Now it is the Poet—that is to say the Author of Coup de dés himself—who has become one of his Fictions.  It is indeed Mallarmé who comes back from the dead to be reborn in the Siren.  Having been infinitized owing to an uncertainty (still unknown) introduced into the count, the Number ends up retroceding its infinity to the thrower of the dice.  But this thrower is Mallarmé himself (196).

Mallarmé has thus succeeded in infinitizing himself by achieving through this poem both possibilities equally: that the die was thrown (as Meillassoux contends), and that it was not. As a direct result, both the possibility that the poet succeeded in expressing the ‘unique number,’ and that he did not, also remain open. The poem, in this way, contains both the presence and the absence of the author, and simultaneously renders the code Meillassoux detects within (and as the tally of) its lines, both fictional and real.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that reading ‘Un Coup de dés’ without locating (as Meillassoux does) a specific ‘unique number’ may direct us toward a very similar conclusion as the one arrived at by Meillassoux: ‘the Master’ representsall possibilities, ‘all things’ (136).  But in this case, as Meillassoux points out (unlike in his own interpretation of the poem) the Master is understood to be representative of ‘all things’ only virtually – because ‘he is, in truth, none of them’ (TNS 136). Rather than infinite, the Master must instead be understood as indefinite. In other words, he is not ‘positively anything’ (TNS 136). There is, insists Meillassoux, an important distinction to be noted between the ‘perennial hesitation’ of the Master, which marks the ‘indefinite’ (the sort of hesitation that can never be resolved: was the die cast, or not?) and a hesitation (or, in Badiou’s terms, a ‘slowness’ or ‘point of interruption’) that is infinite. An infinite hesitation is that hesitation capable of combining the ‘determinacy and the concreteness’ of an actual choice, and its finite consequences, with the ‘ideal eternity’ of fiction (Meillassoux TNS 137).

Poetry is that structure, which, according to Mallarmé, contains the possibility of expressing this unique ‘hesitation.’ Because the movement that takes place within a poem is neither a ‘becoming’ nor a ‘dynamism’ (indeed, Mallarmé insists, a poem’s movement is ‘too rapid, too brief’ to be understood in any sense as duration) poetry exists outside any ‘calculable’ progression of time. It thus retains for itself the possibility of expressing ‘all things.’ It is this, of course, that – simultaneously – makes poetry often so difficult to grasp. As Meillassoux has remarked of poetic movement: ‘one could doubt whether it ever took place’ (140).

We seem to be toeing, here, a very thin line. What, indeed, is the difference between a ‘determinate,’ which we find does exist (but so briefly that before we can even begin to grasp its meaning it is already gone), and the ‘correlational’ approach Meillassoux seeks specifically to avoid? What is the difference between a return to a conception of an absolute existing outside human knowledge and reason if we accept that we may never determine it? How is this proposed ‘absolute’ based less on the subjective (at the very least quasi-religious) faith Meillassoux identifies with a ‘correlational’ approach – or from the absolute faith inherent to the ‘old religions’ themselves?

It is true that the line is almost unbearably thin. But it is precisely to the subtleness of this boundary that we must arrive in order to understand the structure and movement of poetry as a truth procedure – and reassert for it, once again, its ‘infinite’ power. Mallarmé’s effort toward reinstating for poetry the kind of ‘presence as absence’ (Meillassoux TNS 111) afforded by a Eucharistic offering is an effort to regain this line.  It is an effort to assert for it, despite its fineness, and the accompanying difficulties in thus being able to maintain it (or even, in a world increasingly dominated by the proofs of hard science, vouch with any certainty that it exists at all), an essential and irrefutable existence. The sort of ‘Presence’ Mallarmé asserts for poetry is founded deeply in absence (just as the Catholic Eucharist is understood not in terms of the Christian concept of Parousia, as an ‘absolute manifestation of Christ,’ but rather as a partial presentation of that which ‘remains hoped for, expected, by the faithful’ (Meillassoux TNS 111). This should not be understood, however, in the sense of durational expectation. Writes Meillassoux: ‘the Eucharistic mode of presence is no longer anticipative but becomes the supreme region of divine being-there’ (TNS 112).

Instead of a ‘representation’ of the absolute, this sort of ‘Presence’ functions as a ‘diffusion of the absolute’ (Meillassoux TNS 112) – but, as Blanchot writes of oracular presence in A Voice From Elsewhere, it is a diffusion that ‘neither reveals nor hides anything, but indicates’ (40). The word, ‘indicates,’ here (as for the Delphic oracle) ‘reflects its root image – the index finger – and makes the word into the silently pointing finger, the ‘“index finger whose nail is torn out,” which, saying nothing, hiding nothing, opens up space, opens it up to whoever is open to this arrival’ (40-41).

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates warns against that ‘strange language,’ written speech, in which – at once both present and absent – ‘someone speaks and yet no one is speaking’ (Blanchot 35). Almost as much as the impersonality of writing, and ‘the knowledge of the book,’ Socrates distrusts ‘the pure speech that seeks to articulate the sacred’ (Blanchot 37). Modernity, according to Socrates, moves us into a world where we are no longer contented to listen and attend to the oak or the stone. We want to know, instead, ‘who it is who is speaking, and what country he comes from’ (as quoted in Blanchot 37). In this way, writes Blanchot: ‘everything that is said against writing would serve, as well, to discredit the recited speech of the hymn, where the speaker, whether he is a poet or the echo of a poet, is nothing more than the irresponsible organ of a language that infinitely surpasses him’ (37).  Because of this, and although writing is also tied to the development, and finally the dominance, of prose (allowing us to move away from our once heavy reliance on verse as a primary mnemonic device), written and sacred speech are intimately tied. It is from the sacred that written speech has inherited its ‘strangeness:’ its ‘excessiveness, risk, and power that evades all calculation and refuses any guarantee’ (37).  There is nothing – no one, that is – behind the written word. In this way, it gives voice not to a presence, but to an absence, or to a Eucharistic ‘presence in absence:’

just as in the oracle where the divine speaks, the god himself is never present in his speech, and it is the absence of god that speaks then. And the oracle doesn’t justify itself, or explain itself, or defend itself, any more than writing does: no dialogue with the written, and no dialogue with the god (Blanchot 38).

It is this essential silence of written speech that discomfits Socrates.  Like the ‘by-products’ of a painting, which ‘present themselves as living beings,’ but are ‘majestically silent when one questions them’ (Phaedrus quoted in Blanchot 38), the silence of written speech is ‘a silence that is inhuman in itself, that makes the shudder of sacred energies pass into art, those forces that, through horror and terror, open man up to alien regions’ (38).  What Socrates desires instead is ‘a sure speech, guaranteed by a presence: one that can be exchanged, one that is made for exchange’ (41). For him, language is understood as always and necessarily contingent, having to do with something, or someone, whose presence is already given and revealed. ‘And, hence, deliberately, with a prudence we shouldn’t misconstrue, [Socrates] renounces any language that is oriented toward the origin’ (41). In this way, he renounces the prophetic qualities of language, as it is only that language within which ‘the origin speaks’ that, writes Blanchot, is ‘essentially prophetic.’  This does not mean this sort of language foretells the future, but instead that:

it does not rely on something that already exists — neither on an accepted truth nor on a language that has already been spoken or verified.  It announces, because it begins.  It indicates the future, because it does not yet speak: language of the future, insofar as it, itself, is already like a future language, which anticipates itself, finding its meaning and legitimacy only ahead of itself, that is to say fundamentally unjustified (42).

This is precisely the ‘original’ language of poetry toward which Mallarmé so ardently hoped to return.

It is not surprising, then, that Meillassoux concludes of ‘Un coup de dés’ that ‘nothing is hidden’ (40). Mallarmé’s ambition was not to obscure the truth through written language, but to have language itself move and resonate in the spaces between presence and absence, in order to expose that which –’fundamentally unjustified’ and evading every calculation and guarantee – can only be contingency itself. It is precisely this ‘present-absent’ quality so revered by Mallarmé, this ‘strangeness,’ inherited from a ‘pre-modern’ notion of the Sacred, which, in the fourth century BC, Socrates summarily rejected. The written word was, for him, dangerously abstract, ‘unjustified’ – and therefore unjustifiable.4

The suspicion Socrates (according to Plato) casts on the written word is, perhaps, a suspicion we have to a large extent maintained. How can we trust that which speaks, like an ‘oak or a stone,’ ‘strangely,’ as thoughwithout origin? Which suggests an origin beyond itself, and therefore beyond both its writer and audience? The relationship between presence and absence inherent to all language has, as Socrates’s suspicion makes clear, fascinated and disconcerted philosophers for thousands of years. Poetry’s commitment to expressing this relation has made it particularly vulnerable to suspicion. The link proposed by Badiou between poetry and pure mathematics – a discipline which, as Badiou has written, ‘strictly speaking… presents nothing’ (Being and Event 7) – strongly suggests, however, that the introduction of absence, or of that which exceeds familiar expressions of number or language, does not necessarily either discredit or limit that language, or the truth toward which that thinking struggles to arrive.  A comparison between the two disciplines offers us an important reminder that the reality we seek to uncover or express through any truth procedure is one that is, necessarily, made up of both presence and absence; of both finite and measurable parts, and the infinite; and, finally, of both what we can, with our limited human subjectivities, grasp, and what exists beyond subjectivity – indeed, beyond human being.

As Derrida and other contemporary philosophers Meillassoux identifies with the ‘correlationist’ tradition since Kant have suggested, everything exists, at least to some extent, as language – correlative and contingent. But as Meillassoux argues in The Number and the Siren, it is precisely because of the ultimately correlative and contingent properties of language that it is afforded the possibility of gaining access to what exists beyond language – to the infinite, and thus to truth itself.5 In order to escape the ‘regime’ of circulation, correlationism and cultural relativism, we need to be able to recover a sense of what exists ‘absolutely’ beyond the limit of language and human being. We do not need a poetry, that is, any more than we need a philosophy, that remains within (and so can merely describe) this ‘regime of circulation.’ What we need, instead, is a poetry that can overthrow that regime, ‘that can be fed and nourished by the surprise of the unexpected’ (Badiou IT 41). As Badiou has argued: ‘truth remains unthinkable if we attempt to contain it within the form of the proposition’ (IT 45). Poetry, when understood and practiced as a truth procedure – as the potential arrival of what ‘is not yet’ into what is (Heidegger QCT 10) – provides us with the possibility of moving outside of the proposition. Rather than remaining within the ambit of a circular or ‘correlational’ loop, poetry retains the possibility of taking place as an ‘event,’ in Badiou’s sense of the term: as a truth that appears ‘in its newness, because an eventual supplement interrupts repetition’ (IT 46).

This formula is remarkably akin to another formula, proposed by Alfred Jarry for his invented discipline, ’pataphysics, which he describes as the study of a ‘supplementary’ universe. As the poet Christian Bök has written, ‘such a science simulates knowledge, perpetrating a hoax, really and truly, but only to reveal the hoax of both the real and true’ (8-9). What is to distinguish, then, between this ‘imaginary’ science and the study of ‘truth,’ which, as Badiou assures us, can only be the study of the exceptional, the unexpected, the new?  If the ‘truth’ is hidden, and it is up to us to ‘decrypt’ it within the ‘regimes’ of information already given –’the situation of knowledge as such’ – how are we to ascertain if the ‘code’ that we eventually reveal (if we are ever indeed able to do so) is real, or if it is not simply a ‘chance’ alignment of information that we have (in searching perhaps for something else) stumbled upon?

Bök suggests that Jarry ‘performs humorously on behalf of literature what Nietzsche performs seriously on behalf of philosophy.  Both thinkers, in effect, attempt to dream up a “gay science”, whose joie de vivre thrives wherever the tyranny of truth has increased our esteem for the lie and wherever the tyranny of reason has increased our esteem for the mad’ (9). He goes on to say that these thinkers lay the ‘groundwork’ for the work of Derrida, Deleuze and Serres, all of whom Bök identifies with ‘antiphilosophy;’ that is, with a mode of inquiry that moves away from any notion of an absolute system of truth, and can be conceived of outside and independent of human reason.

In Meillassoux’s terms, this is the ‘strong correlationism’ (AF 38) that defines our current philosophical and historical moment. As Meillassoux remarks, it is an approach that harks back, ironically, to ‘absolute idealism’ in that the two modes ‘share an identical starting point – that of the unthinkability of the in-itself’ (AF 38). From this shared starting point, two starkly different conclusions are drawn. Where ‘absolute idealism’ concludes that the absolute is thinkable (Hegel maintains that, though the categories of space, for example, or time, which exist beyond us, cannot be conceived as such, it is still possible to deduce them), ‘strong correlationism’ concludes that it is not. Correlationism readily accepts – is indeed founded upon – the notion that ‘consciousness, like language, enjoys an originary connection to a radical exteriority’ (Meillassoux AF 7). It is oriented, in other words, toward what will always remain outside human subjectivity while simultaneously promoting the idea that an escape from the limits ‘radical exteriority’ imposes on the subject is impossible. ‘We are in consciousness or language as in a transparent cage,’ Meillassoux writes.  ‘Everything is outside, yet it is impossible to get out’ (AF 6).

What the ‘correlationism’ or ‘antiphilosophy’ of thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze and Serre have in common (besides this transcendental entrapment described by Meillassoux) is the conviction ‘that anomalies extrinsic to a system remain secretly intrinsic to such a system’ (Bök 9). Every system of representation is essentially coded with the information it cannot help but fail to represent. Because of this, as Bök goes on to write: ‘the most credible truths always evolve from the most incredible of errors’ and ‘the praxis of science always involves the parapraxis of poetry’ (9).  Just as Meillassoux claims to have stumbled, ‘by chance’ on the ‘truth’ of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de des,’ which was the ‘secret’ inclusion of nothing more or less than ‘infinite Chance’ itself, so every knowledge system is inscribed with infinite potentiality – regulated not by what it is able to represent or contain, nor what exceeds it absolutely, but what lies, intrinsic within it: the ‘indeterminate potentiality’ (Bök 10) of its own inscription. Every knowledge system, like the playful science of ‘pataphysics as described by Bök, ‘exists paradoxically in an eigenstate of indeterminate potentiality, not unlike the Schrödinger cat – both there and not there at the same time’ (10). Through its fusion of the imaginary and the real, fixity and the indeterminate, ’pataphysics, Bök argues, ‘has ultimately determined the horizon of thought for any encounter between philosophy and literature.’ This proposition becomes both more apt and more complex when we are reminded that ‘pataphysics is imaginary.  No such discipline exists’ (Bök 9).

If we are to accept Badiou’s definition of truth as that which does not yet exist within our accepted systems of knowledge, this is no reason to exclude an imaginary discipline in our consideration of long established ones. In fact, it is precisely the reason we are obliged to take it into account. If we are to reacquaint ourselves with poetry as a genuine truth procedure – if we are to re-orient our thinking so that it begins not only to perceive and attend to what is, but to what is ‘not yet,’ to all the possibilities of what might, or could be – we must once again approach the thin line between contingency and chance, the imaginary and the real. A line designated by Alfred Jarry in the early part of the twentieth century, and, one hundred years later, by Quentin Meillassoux’s ‘decryption’ of Mallarmé’s most famous poem.


1 Correlationism, according to Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude, has been the dominant mode of thinking since Kant. For philosophers today, there is no access to the ‘great outdoors,’ Meillassoux argues; nothing, that is, outside of us and our subjective experience that is not understood as merely ‘relative’ to that experience; no absolute, which might be considered to exist ‘in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not’ (7).

2 Heidegger draws this definition from a sentence in Plato’s Symposium, which reads: ‘Every occasion for whatever passes over and goes forward into presencing from that which is not presencing is poiēsis, is bringing forth’ (quoted in QCT 10).

3 Mallarmé would have had to have—more or less arbitrarily—decided, for example, what would count toward the ‘unique number.’ Would it be the total number of words in the poem?  Or might punctuation marks ‘count,’ too? And what about compound words? Importantly, it is the compound word ‘peut-être’ upon which the ‘fixity’ of our count founders—upon which determinacy, trembling with indeterminacy, incorporates that indeterminacy within itself and becomes, at last (once and once only, in a single, finite act) Chance itself.

4 We might think here of the structure and presentation of Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de des,’ which remains literally ‘unjustified’— ranging over the entirety of the page, it disregards conventional attitudes toward margins and line breaks.  Mallarmé employs language and form in the poem not simply to represent but to enact a manifesto for modern poetry, freed from traditional expectation and constraints.

5That this rhymes with much of Jacques Derrida’s thinking — particularly his influential analyses of the ‘trace’ and the ‘supplement’ in Of Grammatology - is no accident. Though Derrida is considered by Meillassoux as a primary example of contemporary ‘correlational’ thinking, it is the conception of ‘the supplement’ and the corresponding conception of an inside and an outside to knowledge, language, and reason, so integral to contemporary philosophy, that presents us with the opportunity to move beyond the finite limits of human experience; to reclaim for ourselves some conception of ‘the great outdoors’ (Meillassoux AF 7).

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. The Man Without Content. Trans. Georgia Albert. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1999.

Badiou, Alain. Infinite Thought. Trans. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens. New York and London: Continuum, 2005 (1992/1998).

----. Theoretical Writings. Trans. Ray Brassier and Alberto Toscano. London and New York: Continuum, 2004.

----. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2006.

Blanchot, Maurice. A Voice from Elsewhere. Trans. Charlotte Mandell. Albany, NY: State University of New York UP, 2007 (2002).

Bök, Christian. ’Pataphysics: The Poetics of an Imaginary Science. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2002.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York, NY: Harper San Francisco, 1962 (1927).

----. The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1977 (1954).

Mallarmé, Stephane. Collected Poems. Trans. Henry Weinfield. Berkeley, LA and London: University of California Press, 1994.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. Trans. Ray Brassier. New York and London: Continuum Books, 2008 (2006).

----. The Number and the Siren. Trans. Robin Mackay. New York, NY: Sequence Press, 2012 (2011).

Back to Issue>>

Journal Home | Department Home | Editorial Board | Open Access Statement