Universe as Metaphor
Prof. Freidrich Ulfers
New York University
Fall Semester 1994


"There's no there, there," Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, California. The same may be said of our use of the word "universe" and what we understand it to mean. According to Webster's, it is "the whole body of things and phenomena observed or postulated." It's a lie we use to approach the truth and we may just as well call the "universe" "Oakland," or "there," since what we mean is any thing we can see or conceive but can't really see or conceive of.

"Universe" is the top of a hierarchy of which there is no thing above and every thing below, for which we devised language in order to name and identify. A classical archaeologist is trained to name and identify events and objects in a political order from the material remains within a delimited site. They examine discrete objects or collections of objects, relate or compare them to other archaeological and literary or documentay evidence and propose a possible point in history for that object to occupy -- in other words, they identify that object and preserve it as a context. It is the same method used in classical metaphysics and Newtonian physics.

But there has arisen since the 1960's a "new archaeology," what Anthony Snodgrass calls "intensive archaeological field survey." Its focus is not on a single, restricted locality, the site, but of a region. It generates little in the way of preserved finds, but an almost endlessly exploitable store of new knowledge.[1] It explores the rural whereas classical archaeologists, taking their lead from classical reading, were concerned mainly with the urban site and the material produced there. The results of the excavations at Nichoria[2] by this new method, rather than the classical one focused on monumental architecture and museum-quality artifacts, has generated a much higher ratio of new knowledge to preserved finds than is usual.

So it seems, in archaeology as well as other disciplines, that it is more efficient to scan the region rather than pinpoint the site, to excavate the context rather than impose one on the object. In this final essay I've attempted to do this kind of regional scanning. Throughout my readings I've discovered links that have given me a different view of some "things" and I've used three of them, from William Butler Yeats, James Joyce and Robert Irwin, as the borders between three sections of my essay based on the relationship of Derrida's "undecidability," Heisenberg's "potentia" and Pynchon's "Trystero/Tristero." I've titled the essay "Desperado(s) I, II and III" because, like the bold and violent bandits of the 19th Century American west, each of these thinkers roams the chiasmic border between order and chaos.


William Butler Yeats uses a diagram like the one above to explain his metaphor of the "spiraling gyre" in "The Second Coming" and other poems-- attributing the unshaded cone to "Discord" and the shaded to "Concord" with each as the border of a gyre so that the gyre of "Concord" diminishes as "Discord" increases, then, alternately, the gyre of "Concord" increases while "Discord" decreases and so on. As Yeats said, "One gyre within the other always. Here the thought of Heraclitus dominates all: 'Dying each other's life, living each other's death'".[3]

Yeats is often accused of Romantic mystification but, still, there it is, the post-modern excluded middle, and a credit to the pre-classical Heraclitus, who never stepped in the same river twice. And it moves "one within the other" like the folk music that inspires his poetry while at the same time describes the condition of Ireland after "the Troubles" following the 1916 Rebellion. There's a beauty to the sound of the poems even if not immediately comprehensible. He looks at the world through a seer's eye and believes in faeries, the occult and automatic writing, from which he receives metaphors for poetry from an unknown writer that guides his young wife's hand.



Jacques Derrida's "undecidability" and Werner Heisenberg's "potentia" are not the same but allude to the same thing -- a chiasmic unity, the missing third, the excluded middle -- rejected in classical binary thinking of the metaphysics of Plato and the physics of Newton in favor a seemingly more useful either/or, black/white, inside/outside, beginning/ending constructs used to arrive at a basic or common knowledge. It is a dissatisfaction with these constructs that these two projects share, each seen from their own perspective.

Derrida takes exception to the notion of inside/outside or that there is, as Sartre believed, some way to escape the "system" or "economy" enforced by "logocentrism." As Steven Helmling describes Derrida and his project in his attempt to "historicize" Derrida:

"If theory were a prison-break movie, Derrida would be the guy who dopes out the architecture of the Big House in search of possible escape routes...but since the early '70s, the point of Derrida's blueprint has been less to assist escape, that to demonstrate that escape is impossible. We're all lifers here in the prison-house of language: we may deconstruct, but we can never escape its determinations, its reason(s), its meanings."[4]

It is a distinctly postmodern predicament. For Sartre and his generation meaning and identity were goals to attain while for Derrida and postmodernists they are things to flee from. There is no point of departure for the quest. It is significant that Helmling suggests the role of a criminal, perhaps a thief like Jean Genet, for Derrida -- someone who is thought to be running away from the "law," or, if unsuccessful, held captive. So it hardly matters if the thief is inside the Big House or not since there is no escape to freedom from the system of law. Inside or out the thief is excessive, like Melville's Confidence Man. It is as if obedience to the law is somehow dishonest or, as Bob Dylan sings, "to live outside the law you must be honest."

That's not to say Derrida doesn't start out to be a law-abiding citizen. His early work suggests multiple interpretation as a way out of binary operations. But this gives way to a "general strategy of avoid simply neutralizing the binary oppositions of metaphysics and simply residing within the closed field of these oppositions, thereby confirming it."[5] Since his writing in translation only became available here in the late '70s the works done before 1968 (such as Of Grammatology), which have a sense of liberation about them, tend to mingle in the reader's mind with the later work, in which he doesn't believe in escape. He found that simply allowing for multiple views is not enough because in classical binary metaphysics we are still dealing with an opposition no matter how we look at it, one of the two terms governs the other or has the upper hand. What is needed is a unity that is both systematic and in and of itself divided -- an undecidability that harbors within itself a complicity of contrary values because, as Nietzsche claims, the truth reveals itself as excess.

Derrida's "Big House" then is not so much language but the impossibility of critiquing language with language. What he proposes is deconstruction of language as an instrument for stripping away the layers of metaphysics to show this undecidability. He has no thesis to prove but an impossible method -- rather than a science -- of writing to find as he goes along, like a thief peering through the blinds.

His friend the thief, Jean Genet, admires Glas, Derrida's study of Hegel and Genet, because he finds it supple rather than oppressive the way Jean-Paul Sartre's earlier study of him, Saint Genet,[6] is. It may also be because Glas owes something to Genet's essay about Rembrandt, published seven years before in the odd form of two parallel columns of unrelated texts that interacted with each other, leaving the reader to construct their own text.

Rather than logocentric writing (which is the origin of classical thinking) it is more like speech, one text talking to the other. It is simplistically interactive and the model of interaction, according to Andy Lippman of the M.I.T. Media Lab,

"is a conversation versus a lecture. So the question is, what's the granularity of the interactive system -- what's the smallest atomic element below which you can't interrupt?"[7]

To Lippman the answer lies not such much in an essential particle (a word or a sentence) but in acknowledgment of interruption and a "graceful degradation," an interaction that doesn't cause the system to collapse but lets the thread of conversation degrade in such a way to allow the interaction to continue. Or, it's a "limited look-ahead." You may have a goal in the interaction but there's no guarantee it will end up where you thought it would when you started. You do not have an essential element that you can identify and judge in order to reach a goal. You have undecidability, a river in which you never step in the same place twice.



Three weeks after the Wright brothers take flight at Kitty Hawk James Joyce signs the pseudonym "Stephen Daedalus" to a few handwritten pages titled "A Portrait of the Artist."[8] One year later Einstein develops his special Theory of Relativity. Ten years later Joyce finishes a slim novel with the title extended to "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" as if in the process of writing the book the subject had grown younger ( It was started when he was twenty-two). Daedalus, of course, built the labyrinth to house the half-man, half-bull Minotaur (at what point does the man end and the bull start?) and escaped from Crete with his son by inventing flight.

A chiasmic symmetry pervades the book: the second half a mirror of the first and dead center is silence (or, to be excessive, silent silence).




The goal of scientific discourse is, classically, univocality -- one word, one meaning. Such a language will communicate clearly, exactly, what the speaker wishes to communicate. But when physicist Werner Heisenberg attempts to explain his view on wave/particle duality, he strains at the limits of that artificial objective language and crosses into a zone of ambiguity usually left to the subjectivity of art.

Einstein proposes that light has two distinct aspects of a wave and a particle. Niels Bohr synthesizes these two natures into a theory of complementarity and states that light is neither a wave nor a particle but both a wave and a particle and knowledge of both aspects is necessary to describe light. But in experiments only one of these aspects is revealed at a time and a decision to measure one aspect will affect the other so there cannot be one objective description. This contradiction is explained with the concept of the probability wave, that the laws of conservation of energy and momentum need not be true for the single even but only in the statistical average.

Heisenberg, Bohr's associate, disagrees and concludes that this "probability wave" is something entirely new, a "tendency for something," or the "potentia" of Aristotelian philosophy. It is a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.[9]

What Heisenberg needs is to find not a new language, but a border language that has both the clarity of scientific discourse while using the flexibility of poetry. The atomic particle can no longer be excavated, examined and put on display not because it's out of context, but because out of context it isn't there. "The real problem behind these many controversies," he says, "was the fact that no language existed in which one could speak consistently about the new situation. The ordinary language was based upon the old concepts of space and time..."[10]

But, as Katherine Hayles points out, studies show that language cannot be a passive instrument but is an active engagement with its own currents, resistances, subversions, enablings, pathways and blockages. It is interactive rather than inert.[11] It is not language that is at fault so much as the binary opposition of science and art and the way each opposite uses language. What is needed is an integrated field and a realization that each is a "site" among many instead of an "opposed-site" and that they mutually reinforce each other.

Again, Hayles points out that the microcomputer, which is fast becoming a major tool of language, permits interaction and allows the user to use art in science and vice versa with an ease never possible before (as in a Computer Assisted Design or CAD program). And the computer used for desktop publishing makes a work such as Derrida's Glas, if not possible, at least easier to create. In it he doesn't merge the two parts, the "science" of Hegel and the "art" of Genet, physically on the page, but causes an event to take place where the reader can merge them in the act of reading. While this strategy may be clumsy at first, it is an attempt at an "other" way of writing what can't be written as is the concept of wave/particle as potentia an "other" way of seeing what can't be seen.


When a visitor steps off the elevator on the fourth floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art during the 1977 Robert Irwin Retrospective they are greeted with what seems to be an empty room. The only thing visible, besides the room itself, is the middle of the room articulated by natural light on a sheer scrim hung from the ceiling down to eye level bisecting the length of the room with a black line at it's base that continues onto the walls. Robert Irwin says about his work:

"What I'm really trying to do with these things is draw their attention to, my attention to looking at and seeing all of those things that have been going on all along but which previously have been too incidental or too meaningless to really seriously enter into our visual structure, our picture of the world."[12]



An intensive field survey can be slow, the plot may be covered with another, later structure, or been planted in a crop the current deed-holder doesn't want trampled. It is tempting to overread Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 for clues to it's meaning. The character Rodney Driblette warns against this: "You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several...You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth." The book suggests, in the wanderings of Oedipa Maas, that you have "only to drift tonight, at random, and watch nothing happen..."

That is, no one thing happen. The use of metaphor in the book makes every word, at times, seem to mean a number of things as if there were more words on the page than typographically possible. These words, the smallest useful unit of granularity in language, offer a number of choices for the route so that rather than a straight line of narrative with fixed access points (signifier/signified) it is a web with no direct entry or exit point once the journey is commenced.

James Joyce's Finnegans Wake attempts to do away with even beginning by starting in the middle, suggesting the form of the river that is the subject. Pynchon starts in what could be seen as, vaguely, the middle of the day "One summer afternoon..." in the middle of Oedipa's life where she is thrust into the future role of executrix for the estate of a former lover, Pierce Inverarity to end up searching for the meaning of a metaphor spelled either Trystero or Tristero. "Tryst", an illicit meeting, or "Tris," thirds, the Trinity?

As Oedipa makes her way through the concrete world in her no-nonsense republican manner the Trystero/Tristero intersects in such a way that it clearly becomes not a thing, a clue or an object but a process. One that, in the end, she can not observe and identify but can only be a part of.