The Number and the Siren

By Noel-Tod, Jeremy | Chicago Review, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview

The Number and the Siren


Noel-Tod, Jeremy, Chicago Review


Quentin Meillassoux, The Number and the Siren. Translated by Robin Mackay. Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic; New York: Sequence Press, 201 2. 306pp. $25.95

In his first book, After Finitude, Quentin Meillassoux showed contemporary philosophy some numbers. The biggest was 13.5 billion, the age of the universe, and the smallest was 2 million, the age of humankind as a species. In between came the dates for the formation of the earth and the origin of life. "The codicil of modernity," he observed, is that "event Y occurred X number of years before the emergence of humans-for humans." The "correlationism" of post-Kantian thought, that is, cannot accept the ("naïve") realism of statements about the prehuman without the qualification of their human provenance. Wickedly, Meillassoux suggests that, faced with such "ancestral" facts, intellectually respectable skepticism "is exposed as an extreme idealism," comparable to the creationism that explains the fossil record away as a test of faith. The implication for philosophy, he argues, is that it needs to admit at least "a modicum of absoluteness"-a respect, that is, for the "absolutely possible" nature of mathematical observations-into its intersubjective creed.

In The Number and the Siren, his second monograph, Meillassoux rather more sinuously raises the same challenge for literary criticism. What if it were discovered that Mallarmé's great folio spread of free verse, Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard (A throw of dice will never abolish chance), were governed by an exact numerology? The idea has, he concedes, already been proposed and discredited, and now runs contrary to the antihermetic orthodoxy of modern Mallarmé criticism, which regards the poet's last major work as a renunciation of his obsessive private calculations for the aesthetic ritual of "the Book." Coup de dés's depiction of a shipwrecked "Master" in crisis at the prospect of producing a "unique Number" thus becomes a selfportrait of the poet as "the hero of an absolute Literature that knows itself bound to failure."

Meillassoux contends that the poem is numerically coded nonetheless. Not, as previously proposed, by a symmetrical cipher of twelve (a frequent number in the Book, and the length of the alexandrine Une) but a "Number // that cannot be another," the singularity of which encrypts the poem s prosodic and philosophical modernity. The prime number with which MaUarmé was working, he believes, is seven, and the unique number 707-a hypothesis corroborated by several pieces of ingenious cryptogrammic reasoning, including the homonymie identity of the keyword "si" (in the repeated phrase "comme si") with the seventh note in the sol-fa scale, and the discovery that two thematically related sonnets from the oeuvre contain, respectively, 70 and 77 words, while a third ("Sonnet en -X") points, like the end of Coup de dés, to the Septentrion constellation, named for its seven stars.

All this may, admittedly, begin to make Meillassoux sound like a latter-day Stephen Dedalus, setting out to prosecute his personal theory of Shakespeare with a perverse scholasticism ("he proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather"). Mallarmé's imagining of the empirical randomness of modernity makes him the intellectual grandfather of the author of After Finitude, who expounds on the aleatory (from Latin alea, die) as an illustration of the limited contingency allowed by "unalterable physical laws":

This is precisely what the example of the dice-throw shows: an aleatory sequence can only be generated on condition that the dice preserve their structure from one throw to the next.... If from one throw to the next the dice imploded, or became flat or spherical, or if gravity ceased to operate and they flew off into the air.. .there would be no aleatory sequence.

This passage establishes the rule of Meillassoux's so-called "speculative realism," which asserts that "any cause may actually produce any effect whatsoever, providing the latter is not contradictory. …

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