The Trauma of the Infinite
In a recent post examining notions of time and our relationship to it, Peter Rollins concluded:
Instead of the eternal being simply the ongoing now (the pagan notion), this understanding sees the eternal as the dwelling in all three registers. This is nothing less than the combining of past, present and future into a mass of infinite density that changes depending upon the way we observe them rather than some entropic, reified dissipation of now into a never-ending future.
I commented there that I wanted to push back on the phrase ‘mass of infinite density’ – and I want to expand those thoughts here in this post. Why? Because I think the language is really important.
The idea of the infinite draws us: we don’t want to contemplate a time where our existence will end so some talk of eternal life – or, for those they don’t consider moral, eternal damnation. Others, as Pete has in his post, take a psychoanalytic perspective and talk about (as Zizek does) the ‘abyss of our person’: we are infinitely deep crevasses that are thus effectively unknowable. Moreover, as Pete has outlined, our past and future extends out from us – and in a universe that appears to be infinitely large, it is tempting to frame this in terms of the infinite too: past and future stretching on forever and since forever, and us experiencing the tremblings of this in the complex dimension of the ‘present.’
In terms of past trauma and future hope this is convenient: we can draw on everything that has past, and our future goes onwards past any contemplatable horizon. No matter what we have experienced, we have time. We have a fear that ‘this is it’ – and the idea of the infinite allows us hope that, no, there are still ‘events’ that we cannot foresee that can still bring new futures.
But there are dangers here. If we pursue Pete’s use of the metaphor of ‘infinite density’ we are led(through physics) to the model of the individual who is a tiny mass of infinite weight. In scientific terms, this is a black hole. A black hole is normally a star that has burned out and collapsed. It’s core is so dense – and the gravitational field it thus generates so strong – that not even light can escape from it.
In psychoanalytic terms, this is problematic. Are we such powerful distortions of space-time that we suck in, consume and destroy everything that comes into our orbit? It perhaps pushes the metaphor too far, but we can actually see this happening in practice. The fear of ‘is this it?’ tempts us towards this infinite model of the self, but my hunch is that this generates an equal fear: the trauma of the infinite. The horror of ‘will this never end?’
In After Magic I outlined the problem that the ‘infinite demand’ generates: it leads people into a diminution of their humanity. If this ‘infinite other’ demands a particular doctrine, ethic or mode of being who am I to question it – even if I have questions about it? In a similar way, the promotion of the ‘infinitely deep self’ can generate a similar diminution of our humanity. We can see this in the film Groundhog Day. Stuck in an infinite loop, the protagonist actually loses all hope. He turns to horrible violence – why? Because in an infinite, eternal world, violence has no consequence. Violence is only important in a finite world.
After Magic was an attempt to set out a theology that took serious the death of the ‘big other’ and thus, releasing this infinite demand (whether that be Christianity, Islam, Capitalism or Communism), returned us to a more full and inclusive humanity. In that book I quipped that ‘the most godly life would be to live as if god did not exist.’
In an addendum to that, I’d add that what I’m setting out here is a ‘non-infinite theology.’ A theology that takes seriously our finitude. A theology that might quip ‘the biggest life you could lead is to live as if infinity did not exist.’ This would be a theology that accepted our existence as occurring within a set of truncated time-frames. Yes, the past and future make the present tremble, and yes, we accept ‘the Derridean event’ and the possibility of the impossible. But we also affirm the limited reach of experience and celebrate that the whole past and whole future cannot consume us.
This, I would contend, is grounds for hope. In his post Pete talks about someone with a lonely and abusive past. My concern here is that his fully inclusive and fluid concept of time is profoundly unhelpful in this situation – as past traumas are destined to forever continue to be experienced in the present. Rather, with a stinted view of time, we are able to affirm that the past can be overcome – that there is a present within which past trauma does not need to make itself known.
This doesn’t come out of nowhere. Over the summer I have been reading David Foster Wallace’s ‘Everything and More – A Compact History of Infinity.’ Turns out he’s not just a brilliant novelist, but a mischievous guide to mathematical concepts too (he did some pretty advanced study at university level). And in the introduction he hikes over the terrain of language and abstraction (what ‘horse’ mean – this horse, or the general notion of what you might be contemplating horses mean, etc.) before considering the essentially abstract nature of text and number and building to this:
‘There is nothing more abstract than infinity. Meaning at least our fuzzy, intuitive natural language concept of it. It’s sort of the ultimate in drawing away from actual experience… Analogies to certain ideas of God are obvious; abstraction from all limitation is one to account for the religious impulse in secular terms…’
If the ‘radical theology’ that I and others have been exploring means anything, it is that it goes ‘all the way down.’ And what that means is that it goes right through actual experience and through our language too. And, for me, that means considering seriously our temptation to see ourselves either as eternal beings or burned out sons from which not even light can escape. No. We are most glorious in our finitude. Wonderful, extraordinary, but, or should I say in Caputo’s terms perhaps, with an ending. Because this is not about necessarily ditching the infinite. That remains in the possibility of the impossible. It is to accept that the demands that that infinity can create can be dark, inescapable, and very destructive.