So I was assigned the painful task of commenting on the second part of Spasmen (beginning with “Switch off” on page 330). It’s not that the text is uninteresting or badly written, quite the contrary. However, it’s probably one of the most mathematics-laden parts of the book, making its readability extremely difficult for laypeople like myself. I believe my contribution will have to be very modest and of course I chose not to focus on the mathematical references (maybe someone with expertise in this field will be able to provide some help).
In any case, I understand “Spasmen II” as a mere continuation of the first part of the chapter which zeroes in on mathematical data and formulae whose function is to provide formal evidence for the main thesis developed in the whole section. In that sense, the mathematical lingo is not so important to us as the unfolding of this thesis. And where are we to find its clearest formulation? One example can be found on page 333 (but also in some other key parts of the book): something happens after the “Riß” that causes mathematics to become a “pure science” (reine Wissenschaft), in other words, “a mathematics whose symbols become autarchic with respect to the possible objects of their reference” (p. 333). But there’s actually more than that. It’s not only that mathematics acquires independence in relation to the real, but rather that its claims (Aussagen) are themselves events and things (Ereignisse und Dinge). Everything that happens from then on constitutes “positivities” (in the Foucaultian sense), by means of which the mathematical discourse communicates with other discourses and technical media.
As we already know, the end of the world’s representability opens up the space for the emergence of technical media (and later, of digital technologies). The second part of Spasmen is also concerned with waves, fluids, force fields, electromagnetism and everything else that has to do with the idea of a spooky continuum. The world is no longer totalizable, no longer analyzable, but only technologically “translatable” in small, arbitrary and quantifiable intervals or (the other possible way to deal with the end of representation) expressed by apparatuses that engender an artificial continuum from these intervals (p. 339). However, the main focus here seems to be light and electricity on one hand and movement and organism on the other. From the point of view of the great bureaucracy, we’re now dealing with monstrosities, with a bad infinity (Unendlichkeit), which is the “pathology of the Newtonian binomial series” (p. 344) – as Siegert describes electromagnetism. The pure signal (which replaces the signs of the previous period) represents nothing else than the continuous deconstruction of representability itself (p. 344).
Should we suggest that the connection between organism and electricity (expressed, for instance, by the experiments with frog’s legs) – one of the main topics of this section – inaugurates the possibility of a cybernetic reasoning, according to which there is no significant ontological difference between bodies and machines? In fact, according to Siegert, these types of experiences, like the induction of tetanus in frogs’ muscles by means of electrical impulses, exposes “the romantic subject reduced to its physiological truth” (p. 348). Free will is then no longer conditioned through God’s omnipotence, but rather through the frequency spectrum of the nerves. Therefore, nineteenth century’s man is not the subject of a bureaucracy. He is now the subject of transmission frequencies (Übertragungsfrequenzen). In other words, the spasms (Spasmen) point irrevocably to the material dimension of the subject and to its relationship with the great other (the Real). We leave behind the symbolic order and touch the realm of the Real (vom Zeichen zum Signal). From now on, the subject ceases to be the origin of representations and becomes medium for a signal. In that sense, I’m very much interested in Siegert’s digressions about the role of hypnosis in expressionist cinema. As soon as one acknowledges it’s no longer possible to evoke a soul as the foundation for physiognomic readings (as a conservative thinker like Max Picard would suggest), we have to understand our bodies’ motions and facial expressions as the surface products of the technological unconscious of media. Deprived of a soul, the hypnotized subject, in the words of Stefan Andriopoulos, works as “a sort of medium who could even be compelled to commit crimes against his or her will” (p. 2). As Andriopoulos demonstrates in his brilliant media-archaeological study of expressionism (Possessed, 2008), magnetism becomes a powerful instrument for the mechanization of the subject. Or, as Siegert himself puts it, the primordial scene of the expressionist film must be understood as the “electrotechnical operation” by means of which dead bodies are continuously brought back to life (p. 354) – but, of course, it’s a life completely devoid of soul or interiority.
At this point, I would love to explore some possible connections between Siegert’s fascinating idea of the sea as the elemental space (Elementarraum) from whence the other elemental space of the digital originated and Vilém Flusser’s engaging marine fable of the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (“the vampire squid from hell”), which allegorizes mankind’s transition into the realm of digital technologies. However, I feel that I wrote too much already and this will have to wait for another occasion. What really troubles me when reading this chapter (and the whole book, as a matter of fact) is the connection between the notion of the continuum and digital technologies. Traditionally we associate analogue technologies with this continuum and the digital with the fragmentation of reality into bits and bytes. Siegert seems to complexify this idea, by associating the digital simultaneously with alternating pairs like “make” and “break” and the fluid continuity of the ocean. Like one really good review of the book puts it, “It’s not the thought of representation in its technical ensemble that operates (here), but rather the deterritorialization of the elements of the order of representation, the liberation of a bad infinity, the endless concatenation of plus and minus, zero and one, negative and positive, electricity and magnetism. The end of classical representation harbors the beginning of electronic media”. For me, this loss of a solid foundation, of a Grund or Boden brought about by the digital (and its consequences in many different fields) is one of the most fascinating notions of the book.