The Trauma of the Infinite

by , under Culture, Economics, Science, Theology

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.


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  1. Marika

    I think it’s important to say that it’s *precisely here* that Caputo and Zizek disagree and it’s precisely this idea that we just have to make peace with our limitations that means that Caputo is stuck in political liberalism, i.e. why he isn’t able to offer any meaningful critique of capitalism. Which is fine if you’re a liberal and want to muddle along tinkering at the edges of capitalism to make it a bit nicer, but it seems to me like one of the reasons that some people have objected to your account of radical theology is that it just doesn’t make any sense at all – at all! – to co-opt Zizek into that project.

  2. KB

    Can I get you to tease out a little further what you mean by that in relation to this post? ‘Making peace with our limitations’ – my reading of Caputo is (as ever) limited, but that’s not something I’d have immediately taken from it. And given that Zizek isn’t a ‘muddler’ – how would you relate to that in terms of a view of the infinite?

  3. Marika

    OK, so for example, Caputo says things like this:

    ‘Our best bet is a happy minimalism about who we think we are, or who others are, or what history or nature of sexuality is, or who God is’

    ‘If people actually believed that they really don’t know in some deep way what is true, we would have more modest and tolerant and humane institutions’

    ‘I would be perfectly happy if the far-left politicians in the United States were able to reform the system by providing universal healthcare, effectively redistributing wealth more equitably with a revised IRS code, effectively restricting campaign financing, enfranchising all voters, treating migrant workers humanely, and effecting a multilateral foreign policy that would integrate American power within the international community etc, i.e. intervene upon capitalism by means of serious and far-reaching reforms … If after doing all that Badiou and Žižek complained that some Monster called Capitalism still stalks us, I would be inclined to greet that Monster with a yawn.’

    ‘The link between democracy and the promise is that democracy is self-correcting or, as [Derrida] says, “auto-deconstructing.” A democracy allows for its own revision or deconstruction, its own repeatability and reusability. It builds the future into itself so that—this is the hope—it doesn’t freeze over.’

    Zizek’s whole project is set up directly in opposition to this liberal democratic model (amongst others), what he describes as ‘a liberal pragmatic assertion of the gap (democracy admits the imperfection of our societies, there is no final solution to our woes, just a more or less successful pragmatic tinkering)’. And he does this precisely in the name of the infinity which is at the heart of the human subject: ‘the negative force which threatens the individual and shakes the foundations of his life is not … external to the subject … but his very core, the very heart of his being. This is the way the awareness of one’s finitude immediately reverts into the experience of one’s true infinity, which is self-relating negativity’.

    Is that any clearer?

  4. KB

    Yes, that is. I think what I’d want to then push Zizek on is what the post is trying to get at: what is it people are talking about when they invoke the word ‘infinity.’ My hunch is that this is perhaps incautious of Zizek, for the reasons I’ve tried to set out above (though imperfectly – and ought really to write something more focused on DFW’s arguments in Everything And More – which is a pretty delightful counter-title to Less Than Nothing!)

    In other words, I’m troubled by the perhaps lazy way he’s using ‘one’s true infinity’ in that the immense gravity it produces leads towards an impossibility of action – and one that could be so impossible as to be permanent.

    I got your point at GB about periods of inactivity – allowing systems enough rope to hang themselves – but I think my worry is that the move from ‘very large’ to ‘infinite’ is, psycho-mathematically, too small a step in language that’s not matched by the infinite step in political and personal implication. Which is why I was equally concerned to push Pete back on that language (as I’d now like to do in my own works, retrospectively.)

  5. Darryl

    Started reading Richard Kearney’s “The God Who May Be” this morning. He defines /persona/ as an eschatological aura of possibility that (if I understand him correctly) is a nexus of both (or neither?) presence and absence. Or, in his terms, “incarnate and flesh and transcendent in time.”

    Just thinking about that as I read both your post and Pete’s. Pete emphasizes this infinite denseness while you lean towards our fintie nature in order to cast off the infinite demand — and yes, you do give the nod to Derrida. (I’ve always meant to ask you, btw, if you believe that we ourselves are the ones who create those infinite demands — I’m thinking we are, although I do like “Event” language.)

    No answers here. Just thinking out loud. When it comes to these things, I’m more admiring the scenery than I am comprehending it. 🙂

  6. KB

    I like the idea of ‘incarnate in flesh and transcendent in time’ – but I still want to push (hard) on this use of the word infinite. It’d be good to hear from Pete on his take on his ‘infinite density’ line, but I’m becoming more convinced that Zizek is wrong to band about the term ‘one’s true infinity.’ I just don’t think he’s thought carefully about that, nor the implications of what that actually means. And that’s important, because those who are agreeing with his line of thinking – if they take him at his word – will be stuck in a permanent state of inaction because of the infinite size of the problem.
    So I’ll nail my colours to the mast: I think we’re foolish to pursue a theology that emphasises the infinite. It’s politically and psychologically harmful. It doesn’t mean that the infinite does not exist. Just that, as DFW explains brilliantly, it would represent the ultimate abstraction and thus be utterly unattainable for us.

  7. Marika

    So I’m not entirely sure that I’ve completely figured out this aspect of Zizek, but I think it’s to do with his idea of drive. To be human is precisely not to be satisfied with finitude, with the way things are, with satisfaction: there is always something in us that wants more, that cannot be satisfied: an infinite drive that doesn’t come from outside of us but is constitutive of our very selves, that can’t be escaped, that we can’t make peace with. Zizek’s atheism means that we don’t locate the infinite outside of ourselves, in God, but inside of ourselves, and the drive is simultaneously the most horrifying, terrifying aspect of being human and the thing that is most hopeful, most fertile, the way that newness breaks into the world.

  8. KB

    That would fit with what I’ve read of him, and what I’ve taken too. But I’m beginning to rethink this now; I honestly think it’s problematic. Poetically it’s a nice idea, this ‘infinite drive’, but, as I’ve tried to set out, I think it’s unhelpful if this is interpreted as meaning something more than poetics – especially if one is doing work with people at a religious, psychoanalytic or activist level. And I guess my worry is that, in the way you’ve set out his political MO, that is what has happened.

    Neurologically – and I think this field is going to make the big strides in psychology and studies of ‘drives’ – it’s a nonsense to talk of infinity. One of the points of DFW’s work is that the jump from ‘very very large’ to infinite is SO huge, so chasmic that it requires an entirely new mathematics. And in the political or personal sphere I think perhaps Z needs to appreciate that, and perhaps thus temper his talk of the way that political change can occur… which might bridge that gap back to Caputo a little?

    I’d agree though that the density is internal rather than external and is not something that can be escaped – though I’m happy to accept that this could provide fertile grounds for a ‘Christian atheism’, and this is why Z is perhaps a valid person to draw into the project. Why? Because there are actually two linked kinds of infinity: the infinitely small and the infinitely large. So, take a number-line. It is infinitely long (because the numbers never stop) but also infinitely dense (because no matter how much you zoom in there are still an infinite number of numbers between x1 and x2). I think these two mathematical infinities are what, poetically, people are talking about in the ‘internal’ and ‘external’ locations of infinity that you talk about. My argument is that there are problems with both, but the fact that Z uses one of them (atheist/internal) points to me to a valid use of his work to synthesise with the other (agnostic/external).

  9. Marika

    So,I want to think about this a bit more, this place of the infinite in Zizek. But I don’t think that the gap between Caputo and Zizek *can* be bridged. Not that there’s nothing they don’t agree on, but that ultimately they represent fundamentally incompatible visions of the nature of the world and the goals of political and ethical action. That’s one of the things I was trying to get at a bit in my talk, I think: they clearly share a lot of themes and influences (which both acknowledge in different ways). But where Caputo thinks that you can get rid of the annoying bits of Zizek to find some ideas that are basically compatible with his own, I think Zizek’s right that the difference goes deeper, that they’re ultimately not compatible. You can like both, but ultimately there’s a point at which you have to choose between them.

  10. KB

    Sorry – I just edited my last comment quite significantly and that’s messed up the thread…

    Linking back – my hunch (and I’m totally in new territory for me here) is that the parallels between the different infinities do provide an odd bridge between Zizek and Christianity, but – given my desire to see both reduced from these ridiculous places of total abstraction (which any infinity is) I think this ‘reduced’ Zizek might bridge with Caputo’s work. But I’m not certain of that. What I really want to do is challenge Z properly on what basis he’s using the word. For me it’s baggy.