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The Web site of aleph · Index
The lethal text
Writing under erasure
Mesopotamian myth
The Gilgamesh legend
The nam-shub of Enki
The Tower of Babel story
The song of the Sirens
Plato's metaphor of the cave
"man's insanity is heaven's sense"
The Ultimate Melody
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Snow Crash

Once upon a time The Web site of aleph by Michael Chorost existed, but has since ceased. These texts represent a small measure of its content. Image from the short story ARI-L by Caza.

deoxy > philosophos

Writing under erasure

There are several levels of paradox. The shallowest level, aleph-one, exists where words contradict themselves. One meaning is juxtaposed with a contradictory one. Such paradoxes can be articulated, such as in "This sentence is lying." The deepest level, aleph-null, exists where language contradicts itself. Here the possibility of meaning itself is cast into doubt. (This very formulation assumes that which it denies, for to speak of doubt is to assume that there is certainty.) Such paradoxes cannot be articulated, for a successful articulation would require the destruction of meaning itself. Derrida cannot of course articulate a paradox of type aleph-null, so he does the next best thing: he writes under erasure. To write under erasure is to write a word and cross it out, but to let both the word and the deletion stand.

Derrida borrows this practice from its originator Heidegger, who critiques the word "Being" because simply to say the word presupposes that anything can be. This is precisely the pressuposition Heidegger wishes to examine, but it is very difficult to question the possibility of being in a language which exists because it assumes the possibility. Heidegger therefore writes the word as [.]. This allows him to point, metaphorically, to the fact that he cannot help but use the word in the very process of questioning its meaning.

Heidegger's use of the technique suggests that Being does exist and can somehow be apprehended through philosophy (the same hope articulated by Plato and, for that matter, by Hilbert, Norris and Whitehead.) Derrida assumes no such thing. He goes Heidegger one better, so to speak, by arguing that all language is written "under erasure." Language exists only because there is a paradox at the very place where language comes into being. In other words, there is an aleph-null paradox at the origin of language.

I suggest that the lethal text articulates an aleph-null paradox. Naturally, this text can only be written in a language which does not have the limitations of human language. Lethal texts have to be written in a transcendental language. Such languages cannot be translated into human ones, and those who read them cannot possibly convey what they have learned. Gayatri Spivak suggests that Heidegger "makes it clear that Being cannot be contained by, is always prior to, indeed transcends signification. It is therefore a situation where the signified commands, and yet is free of, all signifiers--a recognizably theological situation" (xvi). It is also a recognizably Platonic situation. To escape from the cave into the light is a metaphor for escaping into a world not bound by human language.

Macroscope suggests that its destroyer signal is simply a text which teaches its readers how to read the transcendental language in which it itself is written. It is a primer in transcendental language. Therefore, it is not what it says that is devastating, but rather how it says it. Its mere existence critiques human language and make the paradoxes that underlie it unbearable.

It is important that the destroyer signal is simply a text about itself, in such a way that to read it is to instantly experience what it describes. In describing transcendental language, it carries its readers into a transcendental realm. It is a text in which the USE-MENTION distinction, normally tanglable and tangled, becomes irrelevant. To mention it is to use it. The nam-shub described in Mesopotamian myth, and excavated in Snow Crash, is self-reflexive in exactly this way. It is a story about the destruction of language, which, when heard, destroys the language of its hearers.