Brian Rotman
Becoming Beside Ourselves
The Alphabet, Ghosts and Distributed Human Beings
Duke University Press 2008


Becoming Beside Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being is the third in a trilogy devoted to the nature and functioning of certain signs and the writing practices associated with them. I explore ideas, imaginings, conceptual innovations, subjectivities, and forms of consciousness which the signs facilitate (and prevent), as well as the absent agencies and metaphysical beliefs that seem to arrive with them.

Signifying Nothing: the first essay is focused on the mathematical zero, 0 -
it’s contested entry into European thought as an infidel and paradoxical concept; its relation to the various understandings of “nothing” and emptiness; its disruptive semiotic effects; and the complexities of its dual mathematical role: as a number like any other and as a meta-sign at the heart of the familiarHindu-Arabic place notation that assigns names to the endless progression 1,2,3,… of whole numbers.

Ad Infinitum – The Ghost in Turing’s Machine. An Essay in Corporeal Semiotics persues the metaphysical and disembodied agencies that accompany the writing and thinking of the mathematical infinite. A concept one encounters immediately in the diagram “…” of endless continuation (potential infinity), and in the ideogram , the infinity symbol (sometimes called the lemniscate) - the mathematical inverse 1/0 of zero, comprehending a “completed infinity" of passage to the limit.

From classical until recent times these two infinities were opposed and not equally meaningful. For Aristotle only the former, potential infinite - the ability to always add another unit and hence to count without end - made sense;
an ability intrinsic to his conception of “mind”, or nous”, the incorporal organ of thought. He rejected the actual infinite as the source of the in famous paradoxes of Zeno. With the entry of zero-based place notation in the Renaissance, the
actual infinite entered mathematics in the form of a completed infinite sum ( 1 + ½ + ¼ + 1/8 + …), And, then, in a more radical form towards the end of the nineteenth century, when Georg Cantor introduced transfinite numbers and a hierarchy of infinities.

Echoing Aristotle, the constructivist mathematician Leopold Kronecker rejected the reality of such abstractions, condemning them as artificial and unreal compared to the "natural" potential infinity enshrined in the progression
1 , 2 , 3 ,... of whole numbers: "God made the integers, the rest is the work of Mankind". What is it that makes the numbers "natural", that prompts mathematicians to call them so and conceive of them as given always somehow "there", before and independent of the human mind and its works? And why invoke God as their creator? In a sense such questions seek to out-Kronecker Kronecker by insisting that even the potential infinity of numbers is a cultural construct, the "work of Mankind". This leads to a
questioning of Aristotle’s nous, the source of the supposedly natural ability to repeat endlessly. The ability requires a supernatural – disembodied - agency operating, as God is presumed to operate, metaphysically, outside the exigencies of time, space, energy, and physical presence; in short, an immaterial ghost.

Some such agency is invoked by mathematicians (though they do not describe it so) when we write “…” (Boe: and so on and so on) and imagine the endless continuation of numbers signified by it. To say more, one can try to imagine what it would be like to conceive counting and think numbers outside the metaphysics of the infinite. One can ask what it might mean to iterate in this universe, the one which in-corporates us, which we embodied humans in-habit, in contrast to the transcendent ghost-space appropriate to a bodiless “mind”. (non-Euclidian counting).

Boe: ...a questioning of Aristotle’s nous, the source of the supposedly natural ability to repeat endlessly. The ability requires a supernatural – disembodied - agency operating, as God is presumed to operate, metaphysically, outside the exigencies of time, space, energy, and physical presence; in short, an immaterial ghost.
...the transcendent ghost-space appropriate to a bodiless “mind”

Becoming Beside Ourselves pushes the question of supernatural agencies further back, situating them mediologically, in the context of their production. It asks: How, by what material, cognitive-affective, means, did God and “mind” come to be - to exist, to be known, to be objects of belief - within Western culture?

Unlike its predecessors, this essay’s primary orientation is not mathematical signs. True, God and Mind arrive floating ghostlike inside the mathematical infinite; their origins, however, are the letters of the alphabet which write speech, not in mathematical ideograms and diagrams inscribing ideas.

Specifically, I argue the following thesis:

God and Mind (mind, nous, psyche, soul) are media effects of the alphabet, hypostatized entities, ghosts that emerged from the writing of “I” in the sixth century BC within the respective Jewish and Greek deployments of alphabetic writing, born at a point when the medium had become naturalised, the effects of written mediation invisible.
Crucial to the argument is a fundamental mediological point, namely the insistence that any act of self-enunciation is medium specific. This immediately implies that the four reflexive acts - a gestural self-pointing “I”; an “I” spoken in language; and inscribed “I” within alphabetic writing; and the digital “I”, as self-enunciation within contemporary network media - though interconnected and co-present are to be distinguished from each other.
They project different sorts of affect, have different relations to embodiment, operate differently in their milieus, and engender their own forms of subjectivity
In particular, and of cardinal importance for the existence and features of God and Mind, to utter “I” and to write “I”, despite their everyday conflation within Western textual discourse, are radically different signifying acts; and it is precisely the fusing of them, the near universal unawareness of their difference and what might turn on it, that provides the rhetorical matrix for belief in disembodied agencies known only through writing.

Along with belief in their existence of their profiles, the features their believers attribute to them, and coupled to this the affects these agencies project.

The affect proper to human speech, which pertains to moods, feelings, passions, attitudes, or emotions it conveys and induces, lies in its tone,
a phenomenon determined by the gestures of the voice, those auditory movements of the body within utterance: it’s hesitations, silences, emphases, sharpness, timbres, musicality, changes of pitch, and other elements of prosody

The alphabet knows nothing of all this. It eliminates tone and any kind of prosody completely: it reduces the voice to words and writes “what’s said” but not the manner of it saying, its delivery, how what's said is said. What, one can ask, would be the features of a “speaker”, and the affect of “voice” known only through alphabetic writing?

Since tone is the presence and action of the body in speech, such a figure would be disincarnate and invisible, as indeed both God and Mind are.

But tone of voice also serves to other functions: it is the means by which a speaker registers the presence of and attitude toward a listener, and it is an important means - one of the earliest - humans have of individuating themselves and others. Lacking all tone, an agency known only through the alphabetic inscription of its words would appear abstract and (chillingly) indifferent to the existence or not of its supposed adressee; it would also, by being unlocatable and unspecifiable as an individual, project an “other” – nonhuman - form of identity.

But the alphabet’s twenty-five hundred years textual domination of Western culture, “the era of alphabetic graphism” (Leroi-Gourhan), with its singlarizing, monadic, and linear logic appears to be ending.

All that was founded and so long held in place by the alphabet’s mediation becomes increasingly difficult to sustain confronted with a parallelist and distributed logic of multiplicities. In this light, once revealed as media-effects, God and Mind along with “soul” become no longer tenable items of belief and begin to feel strange and of diminishing relevance within the increasingly networked contemporary scene, the lettered self which co-evolved with these agencies and gave them credence now passed its heyday and increasingly overshadowed by a new self-enunciation.

This fourth “I” which is beginning to disrupt and reconfigure its gestural, speaking, and writing predecessors, is a plural self, self beside itself, which cannot but appear as an stable, virtual and “unreal” with respect to us - the deeply embedded denizens of alphabetic culture.