“Every thought emits a roll of the dice.”1 Stéphane Mallarmé, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard
“‘Not thinking’ is not the opposite of thinking.”2 Lauren Berlant, “Thinking about feeling historical”
Stéphane Mallarmé’s notorious poem of 1897 begins and ends in aphorism; from its title, A Roll of the Dice will Never Abolish Chance (Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard), to its final line, “Every thought emits a roll of the dice” (Tout Pensée Émet un Coup de Dés). The title functions not simply as a thematic exterior but rather it sutures Mallarmé’s Symbolist Meisterwerk together. The large words “UN COUP DE DÉS / JAMAIS / N’ABOLIRA / LE HASARD” cascade throughout the poetical–typographical object to hold its augmenting assemblage of fonts, words, and lines (graphic lines, textual lines, lines of flight) together. Its falling-down is at once its holding-together, an entropic velocity that, in its reading, structures the possibility of its asymptotic non-conclusion, that “every thought emits a roll of the dice.” Despite the final line’s aphoristic deliverance it nullifies its role of resolution. The invitation to thought evokes the open formlessness of the dice roll as an ultimate meeting with probability (“cette conjonction suprême avec la probabilité”3), which wills to never abolish chance. Mallarmé invokes chance as contingent yet unassimilable in triangulating between the unfolding of events that a dice role figures and the outcomes that galvanize thinking. Chance thus disrupts the ontologies and phraseologies of origin and end as the constitutive intrusion that both begets and undoes formalization. So too is chance what remains in excess after Mallarmé’s textual event attempts its performance of closure: chance chances every thought as an event’s augmentation, its roll of the dice, whose metonymic gesture is formed in and endures as chance itself.
Stéphane Mallarmé, Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’abolira Le Hasard (excerpt), 1897.
To begin with Mallarmé is to begin with the event’s ghost: for Mallarmé’s A Roll of the Dice recurs in, if not haunts, countless philosophical attempts to theorize “the event,” as this essay will endeavor to show as already having been the case. Nonetheless it remains exigent to question the persistence of chance in evental acts, repetitions, sequences and circularities. Why chance now? My ungrounded speculation will suggest that chance is coextensive in the augmentation of events as both its multiplicational coefficient and the remainder of its equation. My, or rather Mallarmé’s point of departure assumes that the self-contained evental unit and its fixed truth-claim have undergone their deconstruction and augmentation, as seen in the poem’s de-/re-spatialization of textual order and in the untenable relations of signifier to the real. Thus in spite of objectivity’s will-to-power that testifies the sovereign event as the epistemological correctness of fact, the event is always enmeshed in unknowable probabilities of augmentation and erasure. Beginnings and ends are retrospectively constructed by the narrative hegemony of scientificity and historiography, the Greek Chorus of empirics. To say that events are uncertain is a platitude. Yet, the intensification of uncertainty into a heightened magnitude of precarity necessitates a revaluation of contemporary evental conditions and the thinking of their chanced imbrications.
To examine theoretical chokeholds on chance calls for an explication of chance in the production of the historical present, or so-called time, now. Chance stakes a tripartite temporal imperative attuned to the chaotic mattering of an event’s past—present—future. An analytic of chance repudiates the laying of the past to rest in the assumption of an afterward, a progress of being “beyond,” negating teleological facticity and the ethical acquittal of its enlightened ground. In turn, the chance of the past’s coming-to-presence insists on the augmentation of specters that return to us at immanent matrices of thinking and its unthought interruptions—to haunt us, to undo us, and to reorganize our sovereignty. Like and from the past, thinking the future, a dice-roll of possibility begets the apprehension of its atopic portent. Or, as Jacques Derrida asserted, “The future can only be anticipated in the form of an absolute danger.”4 Derrida’s claim draws homonymic and semantic associations to Mallarmé’s aphorisms: “Le Hasard” that will never be abolished is at once the hazard of chance and of “absolute danger.” Yet, chance’s atomization of an emergent danger into the dread of past likenesses and future likelihoods further entifies the horror vacui of the present-in-crisis that Walter Benjamin succinctly noted: “that things ‘just go on’ is the catastrophe.”5 That the event will “just go on” in the catastrophic everyday, as its chances are multiplied and never abolished, posits eventilization as always in hazardous extension beyond the future anterior of what will have been knowable in closure and closed as knowledge. Chance seeps through the event’s ontological and temporal grammars.
Rethinking chance in the constitution of the event and its possible theorization accrues its urgency today as an interrogation of twenty-first century—particularly technologically saturated—existence. The technological augmentation of events exhausts the subject in the recurrence of its tropes: the precaritization of almost everything, the micro-managerialized production of affect, the smooth space between online and labor and finance, living as a technique of the necropolitical, news of catastrophe simultaneously everywhere yet nowhere… the list goes on.6 Yet these symptoms rhetoricize the rampant technologizable attempts at producing the present as calculable—written in numbers, governed in code, planned as events. Today’s subject is thus folded into distributed matrices that are optimized to produce the expected, expensive, normative, teleological, and always already captured. Jean-Luc Nancy provides a clear diagnosis: “There is no end to the exponential augmentation of techniques of control,” in which the “technical self-generation” of calculated events produce “self-complicating, self-obscuring structures” that nullify meaning.7 The modus operandi of technologized calculation thus produces the subject’s Being-in-events as already etherized in augmenting grids of control and in the technical self-generation of protocol.8
Attaching to chance today remains a crucial investment in undecidability, against what the technics of socius have decided for us in augmented events that subsume our livelihood. Yet to assert relevance now, imperative, urgency, is also to lay bare one’s anachronism, suspensions—a projective longing for something different. That chance contra the augmentation of evental control is a twenty-first-century question reflects its untimeliness, deferral, Nachträglichkeit. The delayed uptake claims as its post-memorial thematization the Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “coming-to-terms-with-the-past,” with the specter of the twentieth century. How does one live in the present vertigo of violence, the “that things just go on,” in which technologies of twentieth-century destruction produced the unavengeable repetitions of all-too-human destruction that still augment as today’s calculable aftershocks? To think with Mallarmé is also another form of twentieth-century haunting, of coming to terms with other inadequate techniques of automata—psychic automatisms and autonomous art—and their latent complicities with modernity’s violence. How can one think the production of time now when the past numbs and bars the thinking of events now as chanced and unchained?
Martin Heidegger confronted these questions in declaring the event of the “end of philosophy,” afforded by the “frenzy of rationalization” of technologized fulfillment of wartime destruction into the division of labor of the sciences. Reflecting on the violence of cybernetics subsuming existence in “The End of Philosophy and the Task of Thinking,” first published in 1969, Heidegger writes:
This science corresponds to the determination of man as an acting social being. For it is the theory of the regulation of the possible planning and arrangement of human labor. Cybernetics transforms language into an exchange of news. The arts become regulated-regulating instruments of information.9
It is hard not to read this excerpt as prophetic, almost holographic in its uncanny imagistic projections that simultaneously inflect the past of postwar modernity and the rise of today’s historical present. The networked “planning and arrangement of human labor” became formalized as neoliberalism’s exploitative requisites. The transformation of language into an “exchange of news” reflects the cybernetic seriality of not-unforeseen catastrophic media events that privilege spectacles of distraction over the repetitive ungrievability of bodies. An informatics of art transmutes exhibition-value into collection-value, seen in contrasting but co-instrumentalizing crypts of “social practice” and the art fair. And so on.
Heidegger continues on the state of philosophizing:
‘Theory’ means now a supposition of the categories, which are allowed only a cybernetic function, but are denied any ontological meaning. The operational and model-based character of representational-calculative thinking becomes dominant.10
Philosophy, or Theory with capital “T,” thus suffers the attrition of its ontological bearings through the “technological-scientific-industrial character as the sole criterion of man’s world sojourn.”11 Philosophy reaches its evental finality through the instrumentalization of thought for the ends of the “operational,” the “model-based,” and the “representational-calculative.” Inevitably unsatisfied with such closure, Heidegger’s declaration of the technological termination of philosophy begets his explication of chance in revitalizing the eponymously implicated “task of thinking,” later deemed “the path of thinking, speculative and intuitive.”12 Heidegger analogizes thinking with the processuality of a wandering path, canonically assumed in his works by the image of the Holzweg, a meandering forest trail. Heidegger advocates thinking as the remainder of openness after philosophy’s terminus, reframing Mallarmé’s dictum that “every thought emits a roll of the dice.” The unforeseeable outcome of the dice roll’s permutations parallels the speculative and intuitive trail of thinking, both of which posit thinking as incalculable and contingent on chance. Heidegger maintains that the task of thinking is to reach the point of “the clearing” (Lichtung), the metacritical space of a forest clearing, where the density and noise of the woods dissipate and thinking can undergo its “letting-appear,” its essential unconcealment.
Yet, Heidegger further asserts that thinking’s condition of possibility of unconcealment in “the clearing” is its interplay with concealment—an aspect that remains hidden, opaque, yet-to-be thought. As he writes, what the “clearing grants is experienced and thought, not what it is as such. This remains concealed. Does it happen by chance?”13 The evental process of thinking is thus contingent on a fundamental obfuscation of ontology—something withdrawn or absent from knowledge, which opens onto the path of towards its presence. Does this happen by chance? This provocation with chance implies both a yes and no, though Heidegger’s text leans towards negation: the originary concealment of knowledge enables its letting-appear through thinking. However, that Heidegger raises chance as a rhetorical question functions to compound its spectral return in the constitution of the event of thought as speculative, wandering, and unforeseeable. Chance remains latent in Heidegger’s imagistic abstraction of thinking, resisting techniques of instrumentalization by rolling the dice of thought onto its operative interplay of the presence and absence of knowledge.
What is to be made of the enigmatic chances of concealment/unconcealment and presence/absence in the event of thought and in the thinking of the event? The productiveness of these paradoxes structurally dissolves the linear augmentation of rationalized events. Paralleling the persistence of chance in Mallarmé, Heidegger’s dualisms and paradoxes inherent to “the task of thinking” serve to conceptually foreground various recent theorizations of paradox between thinking, chance and events. In his meditation on Mallarmé’s A Roll of the Dice in Being and Event, Alain Badiou, reflecting on the poem’s evental gestures, writes: “The paradox of an evental-site is that it can only be recognized on the basis of that which it does not present in the situation in which it is presented.”14 In a Heideggerian gesture of concealment, Badiou maintains that the event’s locus of presence is its intrinsic absence and unrepresentability. For Badiou, Mallarmé’s dice-roll is the figuration par excellence of an event’s ontology. Its paradoxical form of a “fixed multiple”—a known permutation of six dice-faces that withholds unknowable outcomes—thus advances the event’s constitutive undecidability. Jacques Derrida extends the event’s grammatical paradox by asking, “Is saying the event possible?” and answering with the existence of “a certain impossible possibility of saying the event.”15 Derrida asserts that framing a specific event begets the double articulation of its “impossible possibility.” Impossibility, always fixed and concealed, functions as the persistent energetics of the chance of the event’s possibility. Lauren Berlant’s epigraphic statement further points to the eventilization as a production of paradox, in which “‘not thinking” is not the opposite of thinking.”16 Instead, the two function as contingent affective irruptions that atomize into thinking and feeling the production of the historical present. Despite their inherent differences, these generative paradoxes—“concealment/unconcealment,” “fixed multiple,” “impossible possibility,” “not-thinking/thinking”—function not as stymies to eventilization, as would be expected by paradox as a linguistic convention of ersatz logic. Rather, the grammar of paradox necessitates the opening onto chance as the event’s simultaneous constitution, effacement, and remainder. Or, as Badiou writes on necessity of the dice-roll’s paradox as the necessary paradox of chance: “The original site dismisses the two terms of the dilemma, given that it was not possible to establish a stable dissymmetry between the two.”17 Chance thus transforms the grammatical blockages of paradox into the force of the event’s fundamental heterogeneity.
In 1969, Belgian artist Marcel Broodthaers created his own version Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés Jamais N’Abolira Le Hasard as a series of aluminum plates and corresponding prints. Broodthaers blocked out Mallarmé’s lines of text to form thin black rectangles and bars, thus eventilizing a shift of genre from poetry to its concrete image. Broodthaers’ images visualize the technological supplement of Mallarmé’s poem as rhetoricized by their process of production. Broodthaers mechanically engraved the plates and consequently printed the three extant editions, resulting in the simultaneous concealment of readability in the unconcealment of a new imagistic legibility. Broodthaers’ Un Coup de Dés thus formalizes the event’s aesthetic opacity—the withdrawal of reading from the visual and the dissociation of words from the world—in an object that nonetheless opens onto thinking through the perceptual labor of its visual encounter. Broodthaers conjoins technological augmentation to its instrumentalization into non-meaning; or, as art historian Benjamin Buchloh writes of Broodthaers’ technologization of poetry:
“Broodthaers’ provocative literalness, turning this industrial process back on itself rather than projecting it onto the aesthetic object, uses casting to resist the aestheticization of technology.”18
Marcel Broodthaers, Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (page 7), 1969, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The paradox of Broodthaers’ means—the negation of instrumentalization through mechanical reproduction—further underscores the paradox of his ends—absent semantic value in the production of a codified plasticity of presence. Mallarmé’s dice-roll is thus transmuted into Broodthaers’ evental iconoclash, yet the latter also never abolishes chance in the undecidible metonymies between a fixed multiple of aesthetic modes of perception and the impossible possibility of its galvanization into thinking.19 Beyond its disjunction of perception into a zone of incalculability, Broodthaers’ Un Coup de Dés both formally and conceptually imprints the event in a parallel structure to a musical score. In resisting rationalization and resolution, Broodthaers’ printed bars and lines in turn confront their beholder as the remainder of chance, scoring the possibility of replaying Mallarmé’s unplayable event. As Avital Ronell suggests of writing and the musical score, “there exists an exteriority beyond appropriation, the advent of something that can be neither fully predicted or contained.”20 Broodthaers’ viewer both confronts and embodies the unassimilable exterior of the score, in which chance is structurally essential and remains never to-be-planned.21 The possibility of playing Mallarmé via Broodthaers’ re-production thus augments the evental release into the unpredictability of the present’s presence and the uncontainability of knowledge on its concealed path—the score of chance.
Every thought emits a roll of the dice, which will never abolish chance, as it goes. The evental techniques that conserve the thinking (or not) of chance range from the banal—a role of the dice—to the catastrophic, like nuclear war. Reflecting on contemporary augmented paranoia over the nuclear and the spectralized fear and guilt of twenthieth century atomic realizations, Jacques Derrida invokes Mallarmé. As they write together, for chances are that Mallarmé is the haunted dictation: “An absolute missile does not abolish chance.”22 The impossible possibility of the world’s absolute destruction reserves chance as that which paradoxically constitutes the event and what remains as to-be thought against the rationalized totality of domination. Mallarmé thus scores the shadow of chance, its concealed presence, into the augmentation of events and the convivial openness of non-instrumental thought. The task of chance, like Heidegger’s task of thinking, points to the restitution of its illegibility and the preservation of paradox inherent to its event. The opacity of the event’s textual and rhetorical paradoxes thus position chance as the excess beyond appropriation, the unfinished score that resists the grammatical technologies that pre-plan the representational-calculative. Leaving things up to chance is not the abdication of responsibility but rather the possibility of its assumption. It is the ethical decision of action from the standpoint of the heterogeneous—of what remains unthought and is never fully knowable—and hence demands the chance of our thinking. Writing on the ongoing catastrophic event of the transmutation of letters into numbers, words into code, and reality into protocols of calculated knowledge, media theorist Vilém Flusser asked a not-so-rhetorical question: “Why do typewriters go ‘click’?” He answered in thought: “Everything in the world can be traced back to absurd chance events that can be worked out by the calculus of probability.”23 Rolling the dice with Mallarmé in an ultimate meeting with probability, together they too never abolished chance.