Infinite Mess

22 Jun

One of my friends has just started Infinite Jest by DFW, probably one of our era’s (and by our, I mean the four people who read and work on this blog (thank you by the way)) most respected and cult-ly followed authors. That however, is just a starting point for a thoughtventure I had this morning as I was folding some laundry and toying with the idea of reading Infinite Jest myself. It started with a question (well, actually, it started with the mental equivalent of a flip-book’s flipping of me publishing a book called Infinite Chess in which the plot of a 2000 page novel revolves around a single, near-infinite game of cat and mouse chess, the kind of novel in which two people are forced to a draw like an apple to the ground, yet for some reason the apple persists. They persist. Anyway, back to the rest of the sentence) as I was folding my Batman boxers––where does the symbol for infinity (∞) come from? And better yet, how do I make it on my computer? Because that would be cool. And even better still––well, no, that’s as far as I got.

The word infinity comes from the Latin “infinitas” (meaning unboundedness, without limits) yet the classic symbol, which dates back to God (in his infinite wisdom) only knows when, shows something a bit different. Scholars (and sophomoric potheads) have long debated the symbol’s heritage. Some say it stems from the Latin word “lemniscus” meaning ribbon. These people tell us to look at the ∞ as a ribbon tied to itself. Others have also found the symbol on ancient Tibetan stone-carvings (how ancient? I don’t know, my web-resources didn’t say). The vast majority of ∞-origin scholars (I’m assuming there have to be at least three, so two out of the three) give credit to John Wallis for introducing the ∞ in his 1655 New York Times Bestseller, “De Sectionibus Conicis”. Tabloids reported that he took the symbol from a Roman numeral for thousand which looked somewhat like a tied ribbon with two little loops like eyes that remind some (probably just me, actually) of the leery eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg.

Whoever devised up the symbol is a genius, because it gets at the very infinite mess of trying to understand ∞. Most of us think of infinity as the other half of a dichotomy, an arch rivalry, with finitude. But the master dichotomatician, Hegel, has something to say on the matter. He wrote somewhere at sometime something that goes roughly like this: “In the very act of keeping the infinite pure and aloof from the finite, the infinite is only made finite.” Thus, in a sense, the unboundedness of ∞ doesn’t distinguish it from finitude. If it did, it would thus be finite for it would have a border.

But then, look at the symbol. ∞! See it? It’s bounded! Not open, not limitless. So, what does that mean? Can infinity be bounded? How can the unbounded be bounded? Are there different infinities? Bigger proverbial fish to fry? This is what I hear, but I know nothing of these phenomena. So, I will hush ma mouth.

Wait. Not yet. If there are different infinities out there, does that mean that there are different boundlessly bound entities that can exist? Not to mention (though, I’m about to), doesn’t the word different suggest boundary, finitude? How am I supposed to wrap my head around that?

Instead of trying, I’ll just go back to Hegel, who also says some great stuff in the same passage as I glossed above about another dichotomy: between reason and understanding. The main point, he says, is “to distinguish…the infinite of reason from the infinite of understanding; yet the latter is the finitized infinite…” Smart man, that Hegel.

To me though, any understanding we have, what I’d like to call (probably mistakenly) any meaning-making we do, is based in either some lexicon or some logical set of somethings that are presupposed. I can’t helping thinking this way. Mama didn’t raise no pre-structuralist. And simply because these necessary presuppositions for understanding, these roots of meaning-making are grounded in finitude and boundary (just look at Godel’s work on the bounded system of Mathematics and logic) meaning-making has to be a finite experience. Understanding has to be finite.

Even more so, Hegel wrongly opposes understanding to reason. I’m saying this only because it feels to me that most pleas to understanding are reasoned arguments, reasoned having two meanings––meaning that they contain some sort of common set of logical and/or intentional conditional genotypes. We make pleas to understanding (whether they are “of logic” or “of some sort of pathos”) for some reason, some motivation; and it is for reason(ed) (quality) (do you see the double meaning?), namely that an intent presupposes some sort of logic, be it faulty or self-centered, or pathetic, or etc. ad ∞. But this only brings us back to the problem of the boundedly unbound problem of ∞ itself (not to mention the idea that, if our process of understanding is itself a process of finitizing everything, and the whole discourse on everything is itself a process of understanding, then the notion of ∞, since all notions are rooted in a discourse [Mama didn’t raise no pre-structuralist], is itself finite) because it means that infinity is derived from finitude (or, in this case, a finite process producing an infinite entity).

And this leads me to think that Hegel is wrong, or at least not quite right, about reason and understanding. Both, to me, are grounded in a harsh finitude. So harsh, only humans could have thought it up.

But maybe going back to the symbol will help us close this chapter. ∞. There. Instead of being open-ended, like a “c” or something, ∞, like I said, is closed. It’s a closed set of molecules (or for you of our era, it will be a closed set of black pixels) that is constantly regurgitated, re-discourse-ified, and reposed over and over and over until you make an infinite mess all over the front seat of your sister’s car or a mexican restaurant. But I’m digressing. It seems that the key to understanding infinity, or I mean ∞, is to simply look at the symbol. And to keep looking at it forever. And ever.

Here’s how to make a ∞ on your own computer:
For Mac users, it’s just option + 5
For PC users, I’ve heard it’s simply ALT + 236.

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