In the Deserts of the West

. . .  In that Empire, the art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province.  In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.  The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters.  In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars;  in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suárez Miranda, Viajes de varones prudentes, Libro IV, Cap. XLV, Lérida, 1658.  (Jorge Luis Borges, “On Exactitude in Science”)

Tiqqun’s The Cybernetic Hypothesis, from 2001 but just published in English translation, starts with an epigraph from Jean-François Lyotard in reference to Borges’ text on maps and territories.   Perhaps the key to it is its first sentence: “The great concentrator wants stable circuits, even cycles, predictable repetitions, untroubled accountability.  It wants to eliminate every partial drive, it wants to immobilize the body” (Lyotard quoted by Tiqqun 10).  To map a territory to the most exact extent is to replace it, in perhaps the same sense Antonio Gramsci dreamed of when he said the communist movement would not conquer the State but would perfect it by replacing it.  The substitution, however, breeds a particular immobility: the map is after all the territory brought to a standstill, to a fixity that only time can ruin.  Time, or the plague:  the Cartographers Guild could not have foreseen the invisible irruption of the virus that reintroduces a now irretrievable gap between map and territory.  Any dream of reproduction and control, of reproduction by means of and in view of control, is shattered.  The gap, the virus, destroys the speculative project through a multiplicity of zones of opacity.  And then what?

“Cybernetic [capitalism] asserts itself by a negation of everything that escapes regulation, of all the lines of escape that save existence in the interstices of the norm and its apparatuses, of all the behavioral fluctuations that ultimately would not follow from natural laws” (27).  The “total modeling” (43) of the cybernetic hypothesis flounders.  “Total transparency” (55) ends in a chaos of solitude.  Surveillance and capture, after all, the twin apparatuses of cybernetic capitalism, are premised on the absolute equivalence of map and territory.  The uncertainty the gap introduces throws a wrench into the workings of their will-to-power whose reconstruction is now, perhaps transitorily, in doubt.

Another epigraph, this time from Giorgio Cesarano: “The fictitious constantly pays a higher price for its strength when beyond its screen the possible real becomes visible.  It’s only today, no doubt, that the domination of the fictitious has become totalitarian.  But this is precisely its dialectical and ‘natural’ limit . . . in the bloody sinking of all the ‘suns of the future,’ there begins to dawn a possible future at last.  Henceforth, in order to be, humans only need to separate themselves once and for all from every ‘concrete utopia’” (Cesarano quoted by Tiqqun 119).   The separation is not simply willed: it occurs, dystopically and ineluctably.  Its name is “panic” (122), a “disintegration of the crowd within the crowd” (123).  “It’s the end of hope and of every concrete utopia that takes form as a bridge extended towards the fact of no longer expecting anything, of having nothing left to lose.  And through a particular sensitivity to the possibilities of lived situations, to their possibilities of collapse, to the extreme fragility of their sequencing, it’s a way of reintroducing a serene relationship with the headlong rush of cybernetic capitalism.  At the twilight of nihilism, it’s a matter of making fear just as extravagant as hope” (125). 

The “invisible revolt” (160), as invisible as the viral irruption, proliferates secretly, inconspicuously, through the constitution of zones of opacity “in which to circulate and experiment freely without conducting the Empire’s information flows” (161).  There are anonymous singularities that have broken and are breaking loose.  They must now experiment.  The thought experiment must go through what Jacques Derrida, in his Theory and Practice Seminar, called l’incontournable.  Thought returns to its calling as an attempt to open to what is both inevitable and obscure, ineluctable and necessary but remote and forbidden.  It cuts through Cesarano’s fictitious because it has forcefully been exiled from it.  The radical denarrativization the virus wreaks into the very fabric of the illusion of the speculative dream, cybernetic capitalism, leaves us open to a silence we have perhaps never heard before, never experienced.  That opaque silence is also the promise of a future.

Alberto Moreiras

Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. “On Exactitude in Science.”  In Collected Fictions.  Andrew Hurley transl.  New York: Penguin, 1998.  325.

Derrida, Jacques.  Théorie et pratique.  Cours de L’ENS-Ulm 1975-76. Paris: Galilée, 2017.

Tiqqun.  The Cybernetic Hypothesis.  Robert Hurley trans.  Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2020. 

5 thoughts on “In the Deserts of the West

  1. Alberto, I like this a lot (and it reminds me to order The Cybernetic Hypothesis). I also realize that my own little contribution to “plague discourse,” a reading of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, is about the virus as what you call “radical denarrativization,” or perhaps simply radical obstacle to narrativization.

    I’m not sure, however (and here I think you would agree, but let’s see), that there’s anything specially denarrativizing about the virus itself. No more so than many more common or garden experiences or events (and here I use the term “event” in a loose, everyday sense). It’s just that for now, perhaps, things are still open: no single narrative has got ahold of the pandemic. Elsewhere it’s simply more difficult to loosen events (again, in the loose sense) or objects from the narratives that have got them in their grip.

    Let me also add (and again I think you would agree, but I am less sure) that there is a double task here: both to maintain, however briefly, the gap between narrative and territory, between event and narrative; but also to try to “shape” (as they say) whatever narrative(s) may emerge.


    1. Jon, I thought initially about whether or not the viral irruption was an event, but I abandoned that soon, because it seemed to me after a while that the fact that it be an event or not can only be ascertained retrospectively. Right now, at least in the US, it does not look like it will be much of an event, in the sense of bringing on some kind of historical cut. But things may still happen. I am therefore more interested in the notion of denarrativization, which for me does not mean the absence of narrative, rather it means the end of a particular narrative. And for that I was actually following the narrative that Tiqqun’s The Cybernetic Hypothesis presents as central to the present. It is a complicated one that it would take long to reproduce, but suffice it to say: for Tiqqun it is the central narrative of our age, derived from the 1970´s crisis and the constitution of a digital or information capitalism. They say we misname as neoliberal, when it would be much more accurate to call it cybernetic capitalism. It is based on flows of information and apparatuses of control and surveillance, and it means to resist threat, uncertainty, exposure to some radical other. This is the narrative that, for the time being, the virus is disrupting. That does not mean cybernetic capitalism will not bring that disruption under control, through an intensified securitization and medicalization of the state of affairs. It has not yet, that is all. To that extent, there is a void, and that void could prompt a certain panic, taken by Tiqqun, following Sloterdijk, as a positive development. So my intent was to modulate that panic and to interpret it as a form of silence we have not heard yet, as an experience we have never had. And there could be something there. I will leave it for now. I can send you a little paper, Nota sobre desnarrativización y la página en blanco. Abrazos, Alberto


  2. PS: So I wanted to take the Borgesian reflection on maps and territory as far as it can go: cybernetic capitalism is an attempt to substitute itself for the world. The virus, outside the purview of cybernetic capitalism, opens a gap whereby there is no longer a coincidence between world and capitalist life. That gap, as you say, should remain open. Perhaps that is all the event we are going to get.


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