Ontological incompleteness

Reality, as Benjamin (2003[1982]) projected Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal return (2001[1882]; 2006[1883]), is a tricky movement of perpetual recurrence. The same concepts of immanence and incompleteness can be found in Deleuze’s difference (1994[1968]) and in Borges’ circularity[1]. The conceptualization of difference in Deleuze —strongly tied to repetition— is inspired, among other things, by Borges’ story of Pierre Menard (See V18). However, the relationships and coincidences between those two authors go further than just this particular encounter.

In a short essay mixing philosophy and literature, Pérez and Bacarlett (2019) go deep into the various similarities between Borges and Deleuze (B&D) through the presentation of a series of paradoxes both authors developed along with their production: the paradox of incompleteness; the paradox of the subject; the paradox of the sensory the paradox of finitude; and the paradox of repetition. The authors explore the different linkages between Borges and Deleuze but also between philosophy and literature, vindicating those two ways of creating knowledge as valid scenarios for seeing the world far from, and simultaneously concurrent with, the dominant scientific point of view.

“The underlying issue —drama in the original— in both philosophy and literature is to try to represent the unrepresentable. [This is in that way] due to the only certainty both fields have is that our departure point for approaching and representing reality recognizes the limitations of our capacities and tools. That is why B&D philosophy and literature are committed to the usage of paradoxes to represent what cannot be represented. B&D [according to Pérez and Bacarlett] use paradoxes as “their main device for energizing and provoking our way of thinking. […] Both Borges and Deleuze are convinced that we only start to think when we set aside common sense, and we face the challenge of doing it paradoxically.” (Pérez and Bacarlett, 2019: 13-14[2]).

The implementation of paradoxes, along with this whole dissertation, aims to represent more than the unrepresentable, that which is mostly discarded and put aside by traditional perspectives in both Urban Studies and STS: those minimal and temporal everyday situations that give the impression they are outside of any big theory and that we are used to taking for granted, turning them either into landscape or anecdote. These instances might include, for example, a person taking pictures, a group of street vendors selling CDs, a bench, tourists in New York in a pedestrianized Times Square.

These kinds of spaces and situations, these minimal and transitory associations are what Manuel Delgado incites us to follow, to collect and to turn into the object of study in a sort of naturalist-interactionist urban ethnographic program based on prediscursive descriptions: “It is like if there is still everything to do. There is a huge continent that has not been explored by social sciences yet. It is a place composed of all that infinite profusion of the waste left by social life before being solidified and turned into it does not matter what. It is the work of incongruity; it represents all that is fickle, all that oscillates refusing to be fixed, all the unforeseen and the unpredictable. There is neither history, sociology nor geography of what is irrelevant.” (Delgado, 2003: 8)

Using one of his metaphors, this naturalistic perspective proposed by Delgado (ibid) more or less aims to see the world as a sort of poetic positivism inspired, among other things, by Vertov’s cinematic explorations gathered in his Kino-glaz theory as well as de Maupassant’s literature and by avant-garde writers such as Joyce, Proust, and Musil. This naturalistic proposal of urban ethnography is characterized by the fact that “it does not [want to] aspire to prove anything: it shows, but it does not demonstrate; it describes, but it does not prescribe…” (ibid: 32). Delgado’s intention is just to watch, to watch without convincing anyone, without determining anything, to just observe and describe what our perception is able to see.

This whole piece of research attends to Delgado’s call to go to what is usually discarded and left behind by the mainstream and (so often) totalitarian academic gaze. This work is an exploration of the ephemeral and effervescent associations happening in the streets. However, neither its methodology nor its aspirations follow the course proposed by Delgado with the consequence that, more than a naturalist piece of research, what is presented here is a kind of realistic one[3], a constructivist examination based on the fabrication of experiments (Marrero, 2008).

The discussion of naturalism and realism in urban ethnography carried out by Delgado and Marrero points out two different ways of understanding the practice of conducting an ethnography of the life outside. The aim of a naturalist way of doing ethnography is “to say everything” (Ibid, 28) about something through the elaboration of descriptions that, as we have already seen, do not want to demonstrate anything. In other words, naturalism is a “pre-discursive science” (Delgado, 2003: 32), a transparent attempt to reflect reality without any intention to affect it. Meanwhile, the purpose of a realist ethnography is “to write realistically. It means being influenced by reality and, at the same time, having the possibility of affecting that reality” (Brecht, 1984: 263, initially quoted by Marrero, 2008: 112).

Regarding this research’s aspirations, the disjunction between this dissertation and Delgado’s naturalistic proposal can be observed in how the scope of this work is limited and reduced to the resources and situatedness of the person writing these words. Also, its boundaries and extension are conditioned by the impossibility of approaching, encompassing, describing and projecting reality —not even a defined, located and specific one— in its whole. The naturalist ambitions of a positivist general view, like the idea of god looking at humanity from above, have crashed into a mobile, multiple and ever-changing world consisting of many worlds.

However, the constructivist —kind of realist— examination I announced two paragraphs above cannot be understood in a simplistic way, contrary to Delgado’s naturalist project. In order to represent what has been discarded by traditional urban studies and STS, one should also abandon any conventional way of approaching reality. It is here where the usage of paradox as a tool for producing new knowledge takes relevance. As Pérez and Bacarlett (2019) suggest, it is necessary to stop misunderstanding paradox as just a simple contradiction if we want to deploy all its possibilities of action.

“It is not enough to say that the antithesis of A is non-A. That is a pretty easy strategy because we are just reducing [in a reductionist way] reality to a simple confrontation of opposites. The paradox is going against common opinion (para-doxo) precisely because it does not offer any definitive option between two [or more] opposite perspectives. Both are exactly plausible. The paradox is going beyond contradiction because this last one can be easily solved pointing a mistake in our way of thinking and, in that way, we can realize which option we have is the best.” (Ibid: 13-15).

Ontological incompleteness is a paradox itself, one that summons Borges and Deleuze but also Leibniz and Kafka. One could even go further and evoke Spinoza and Nietzsche. However, for practical reasons, I will keep those last two authors melted into Deleuze’s work. The concept of ontological incompleteness proposed here is a construction designed for gathering both the epistemological equivocations of approaching an element in its whole, as well as the efforts of reducing that element while expanding its ontologies—two sides of the same coin.

The idea behind ontological incompleteness has also been developed —although not using that term— by Farías (2011: 369) for talking about the city as a never ending multiplicity of assemblages: “the constructivism underlying the notion of urban assemblages does not reflect an epistemological problem but is an ontological proposition. It is based on the general assumption that the world is not all in, that it is in the making and that a finished or complete edition of it within which to dwell does not exist. As in Bender’s title The Unfinished City (2007), the basic notion is that there is no city as a whole, but a multiplicity of processes assembling the city in different ways.”

The intention of approaching an element in its whole, reducing and expanding it, could also be framed by what Calore (1989: 21) has named “Dewey’s event-centered metaphysics of temporality.” Dewey’s (1998) essay, Time and Individuality, proposes a similar —if not identical— paradox of reducing an element (an individuality) by expanding (pluralizing) its ontologies always in terms of time. “Only a philosophy of pluralism, of genuine indetermination, and of change which is real and intrinsic gives significance to individuality” (Ibid: 219).

For Dewey, any element is historical and, in a more precise way, it is a piece of history. ‘[A]ny particular event cut off from that history ceases to be a part of [its] life as an individual” (Dewey, 1998: 223). The continuous repetition of individuals in time, a process he calls “development” (ibid), is actualizing a particular piece of history. That piece of history is, in other words, a well-defined element as well as its ontologies (individuals). However, the action of developing expanded ontologies is only possible in collectively as it is contingent upon being in relation to and making associations with the other, the “success in actualization depended upon the cooperation of external things” (ibid).

The meaning of incompleteness in an element’s ontology is related, in similar proportions, (i) to our incapacity for describing the world outside[4] and (ii) to the condition the world has of being continually changing. Latour (2012) deals with that incompleteness facing Paris and being tricked by what he calls “the illusion of the zoom.” That illusion is generated by exploring a location using “optical devices[5]” that give the sensation that “one can circulate freely through and in every scale, from the most local to the global (in space), as well as shuttle about back and forth from the briefest instant […] to the longest period” (Latour, 2014: 121).

For instance, the illusion of the zoom occurs when we use an online map to “embrace the entire city” (Latour, 2012) but in fact it does not let us “embrace anything.” It is just providing us with an illusion, a simulation of something that has already happened. “The illusion of the zoom is so deceptive because of the impression of continuity. Because computers can so easily adjust pixels to all scales and link up data […], they enable us to believe that between all these points of view there is a passage with no solution of continuity” (ibid: 91).

Ontological incompleteness cannot however be defeated by leaving aside “optical devices” and instead exploring a location, whether it be Latour’s Paris or, in our case, Times Square by walking through it using the point of view of the stroller. “Yet there is nothing more abstract than this point of view, nothing less realistic – apart from the illusory zoom sliding, without the slightest tremor, from the European continent to the Beaubourg square in Paris, continuously changing scale. Ultimately, a city [one can also add here any urban place] cannot be the framework within which individual moves, simply because this framework itself is made of nothing more than traces left by other individuals who have moved about or are still there, in place.” (Ibid: 92).

As the last part of this short exploration of reductions and ontological incompleteness, I will quickly connect both concepts with a set of four group formations to propose at least four feasible epistemological structures for dealing with and representing ideas of immanence and incompleteness: (LB) Leibniz-Borges; (BK) Borges-Kafka; (KD) Kafka-Deleuze; and (DL) Deleuze-Leibniz to approach reality, as Benjamin (2003[1982]) projected Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return (2001[1882]; 2006[1883]), like a tricky movement of perpetual recurrence:

(LB)

Like a labyrinth, a monad contains all possible worlds but reduced into a singularity that includes all of them. This element is a potentiality expanding itself in the form of a book, of a mirror.

The image of the mirror and the book connect Borges with Leibniz. A mirror, like the Aleph, is “the only place on earth where all places are — seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending” (Borges, 1978) and it projects and multiplies all possible elements through all their possible ontologies. A mirror, an atrocious device that, like copulation, multiplies not only the number of men (Borges, 1964) but any kind of matter and beyond. A book, like the invisible labyrinth of The Garden of Forking Paths —like the central paradox around this dissertation— is a place where all possible worlds are contained, simultaneously, and all of them are real.

Both authors are linked by labyrinths and monads as possible worlds. Those worlds are the probable result of descriptive and relational work on linking substance and predicate “in an infinite array of descriptive propositions that embrace all possible relationships in the whole universe. Each thing in the universe is defined by its relationship with every other thing in the universe, ‘a perpetual living mirror’. In this way, all created things in the universe are reflected in each other.” (Cooksey, 1993: 54).

(BK)

Borges and Kafka are both labyrinth architects. Their constructions are intricate trusses of multiple possible spaces projected to the infinite, to incompleteness.

Despite the fact that the shape and the terrain, as well as the materials used by both architects to build their labyrinths, were different, the intentions behind these structures is similar: to explore that which is incomplete, that which will never be approached in its whole, that which is tricky, that which is multiple and infinite. Besides the sensation of passing through an endless construction of simultaneous and forking routes, there is a perpetual repetition, a constant flow of elements in, for example, The trial (Kafka, 1998[1925]) but even more apparently in The Castle (Kafka, 1998[1926]), with its bureaucrats without a clear identity, which mirrors the infinite hexagonal rooms full of books which contain all the information in the whole universe in Borges’ Library of Babel. 

However, at the same time as those constructions are stretched to the infinite, they are being reduced and limited to the situatedness of those who are facing them. As readers, we never have a totalitarian view of the labyrinth. We never know more than the people inside these structures, who depend only on their intuition and the kind of relations they can elaborate. With regard to these linkages, both authors’ protagonists are forever dealing and making associations with ideal subjects, such as the Law in Kafka or Knowledge in Borges. Nevertheless, taking the law as an example, it is embodied, it means, its is reduced but also multiplied in bureaucrats without a clear identity who appear and disappear, acting, producing a difference and the sensation of a continual repetition of moments and steps.

(KD)

Franz Kafka, multiplied by Deleuze, assembles unfinished rhizomatic structures, castles with infinite entries and passageways to reproduce and represent the multiplicities of the world outside.

One might say that Franz Kafka was the mind behind the idea of Deleuze’s assemblages. In fact, if someone wants to fully understand and implement that concept as an epistemological tool for interpreting and describing reality, the first thing that person should do is to read Kafka’s novels. As Müller (2015) suggests, “in them, everything seems linked to everything else: there are new, unexpected realities at each turn, entities congeal just to fall apart in the next instance and desire to reach an elusive goal […] recomposes them anew every time.” (29)

Also, Deleuze’s work with Guattari (D&G) (1986[1975]) on “Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature” is a recognition of Kafka’s rhizomatic way of thinking but also writing. Another thing D&G highlight in Kafka’s work, which they present as minor literature, is its situatedness and, related to that, his political commitment at the moment of creating his work. The content of Kafka’s novels is full of relations and collective processes of production. In minor literature, everything “exists in a narrow space, every individual matter is immediately plugged into the political.” (Deleuze, Guattari & Brinkley, 1983: 16). ‘This’ is connected to ‘that’ and interference occurs between ‘here’ and ‘there’. Content and shape melt, everything is connected and we have an assortment of continuously assembled and disassembled references tied to particular locations.

(DL)

Infinitude and a folding universe are central elements in Leibniz’s monadology. Mirrors and labyrinths are just two different ways to label what is behind those concepts.

Infinitude and a folding universe, as well as a connection between the idea of folding/unfolding and the elaborate production of elements, were concepts that inspired the linkages of science, philosophy and literature constructed by Deleuze (1993) as epistemological devices for approaching reality. Although the figure of the monad was an essential source of inspiration for the French philosopher, the metaphor of the labyrinth that is folded in multiple pieces also proved fundamental for constructing his multiple, repetition based, academic program:

[A] “labyrinth is said to be multiple, etymologically, because it has many folds. The multiple is not merely that which has many parts, but that which is folded in many ways. [That divided multiplicity is not being separated] into parts of parts, but rather divide infinitely into smaller and smaller folds that always retain a certain cohesion.” (Ibid, 3;6) The repetition and perpetual recurrence of folded situations is a condition of multiplicity, a simile of an always-changing labyrinthine reality.


[1] The idea of circularity in Borges, of a cyclical movement of time being projected to the infinite can be explored, with some nuances and disruptions, in two of his stories: The Circular Ruins and The library of Babel (Borges, 1964)

[2] The original content of this paragraph was written in Spanish by Pérez and Bacarlett (2019). Instead of just translating the content, I interpreted their intentions, and I reconstructed a similar one, repeating its meaning but expanding its intention. Below you can access to the original content: “…el drama que subyace tanto a la filosofía como a la literatura es tratar de representar lo irrepresentable, pues la única certeza de ambas es que solo podemos partir de la limitación  de nuestras capacidades e instrumentos, por esto, tanto en Borges como en Deleuze, filosofía y literatura están avocadas al uso de herramientas paradójicas […] ambos hacen de las paradojas su principal instrumento en el intento por activar y provocar el pensamiento.” (Ibid: 13-14)

[3] Regarding the tension between naturalism and realism, there is a discussion (only available in Spanish) between Manuel Delgado (2003) proposing —as it was already presented— a naturalist-interactionist ethnography of the streets and Isaac Marrero (2008), inspired by ANT ideas, aims for a flat, realistic and mediated urban ethnography.

[4] I will use this trope for talking about the reality that is external to the researcher. The world outside, also sometimes the world that is there, conforms with (i) a way of denoting what is in front of it —its field site, for instance— or (ii) a manner of encompassing a portion of reality that, depending on context, acquires a particular meaning.

[5] The idea of “optical devices” is a term used by Latour (2014) to discuss the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson’s exhibition, “Contact.”

References

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Benjamin, W. (2003[1982]). The Arcades Project. Cambridge & London: Harvard University Press.

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—. (1978). The Aleph and other stories, 1933-1969: together with commentaries and an autobiographical essay. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Brecht, B. (1984[1967]). El compromiso en arte y literatura. Barcelona: Península.

Calore, G. (1989). Towards a Naturalistic Metaphysics of Temporality: A Synthesis of John Dewey’s Later Thought. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, New series, 3(1), 12-25.

Cooksey, T. (1993). THE LABYRINTH IN THE MONAD: POSSIBLE WORLDS IN BORGES AND LEIBNIZ. The Comparatist, 17, 51-58.

Deleuze, G. (1993). The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. London: The Athlone Press.Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986[1975]). Kafka, Toward a Minor Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Latour, B. (2012). Introduction: Paris, Invisible City: The plasma. City, Culture and Society, 3(2), 91-93.

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Marrero-Guillamón, I. (2008). Luces y sombras: El compromiso en la etnografía, Revista Colombiana de Etnografía, 44(1), 95-122.

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