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From one end to the other*

Gregory Cameron

Graduate Programme in
Social & Political Thought

The following paper was presented at Strategies of Critique XI: The Ends of Knowledge, or the Knowledge of Ends, April 18, 1997, in the session entitled "Once Upon a Time..." The conference was organized by students of the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University.

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There are always at least two ends. Of the spectrum, for example: the political spectrum - from the left to the right - or the philosophical spectrum - from Plato to Heidegger or Wittgenstein. And from one end to the other there is talk of ends. But there are always two ends within this talk of ends. One can speak of last things, but one may also speak of lasting things. Thus, we speak of death, but we also speak of the end that follows death. We speak of a continuity, in which what is comes to be what it is and ceases to be plagued by ends. Thus "from one end to the other" speaks of two different ends, four or more different ends in the end. To what end do these ends go forth and multiply? And where do we begin to speak of such ends? Our title, "The Ends of Knowledge and the Knowledge of Ends," contains a plethora of ends which I could begin to tabulate, but to what end? And would I ever know that I had tabulated all the ends, that I had left no loose ends? And what would this mean, this tying up of ends? Who would inform us that every end was finally tied up? How would these informers reach us? Such problems are endless. And no doubt it would be futile to begin such a tabulation. But it is of this tabulation that I would like to speak, taking as my assumption that every attempt to elucidate a certain end or other will repeat a certain motif that will endlessly throw into question the question of end itself. To our horror we may discover that there will be no end to this talk of ends. Once the conversation gets going, and it has been going for thousands of years, there is perhaps no way to put a stop to it. Thus this talk of ends is one of the most enduring, if not necessarily lively, conversations; it may even be fundamental to the being human of human beings. Of course, we bring up ends to put an end to conversation, but in doing so we reveal the bind, double at least, that haunts every appeal to last or lasting things.

Despite our best intentions, our most thoroughgoing overcomings, our most rigorous critiques, then, certain themes recur. But the theme of the end is always more than simply recurring. Inevitably and paradoxically, the end persists in spite of itself. Oscillating between two ends, the history of ends is the movement of history itself. But these two histories are not simply two. They cannot be kept apart; the two histories weave together forming a web that is never one. And like these two histories, the word end is never simply polysemic. The two ends oscillate, preventing the end from ever settling according to any rigorous determination. Nor can we assume a purity of original meaning. The end is always double, always haunted by its other, and it is this otherness that gives life to our talk of ends, that resuscitates and resurrects this otherwise dead discussion. And it is this oscillation between life and death, this indecision, that entices us time and again to return to the end and to the questioning of ends.

It is by way of this oscillating indecision that I come to the text towards which our talk of ends inevitably tends, and which we only avoid referencing because of a certain commitment to an end without illusions. A commitment to an unambiguous end. Despite our allusions...our hopes? Perhaps, but we neednít say so. To the Book of Revelations then. To the Book at the end of the Book that describes the end. To the end, finally, and to the division and the multiplication of voices, the doubling and oscillation of meanings:

2:17 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; to him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receive it.(1)

Revelations is the book of doublings. The one and the Other: he that hath an ear and he that does not; he that overcometh and he that does not; he that receiveth and he that does not; he that knoweth and he that does not. How are we to approach such a book? To begin would be to assume understanding, to assume that we had overcome whatever it is that the book suggests we overcome. But what sign is there that will allow me to say what I am going to say? I am apprehensive about claiming anything obvious about a text that only the chosen can receive.

The Revelation of St. John the Divine begins straight forwardly enough. It begins with what might be called a genealogy, much like the Gospel of Matthew. The genealogy is a legitimation strategy. But the genealogy can only legitimate if we accept the origin as a legitimate principle which in its offspring admits no illegitimacy. Revelations calls upon our faith; it calls upon us to accept that nothing illegitimate can issue from its origin. Faith builds on faith. Each step away from the origin must be accepted with the same degree of faith as the previous step; to call any step into question is to question the whole edifice. But in what are we asked to have faith? From its opening lines, Revelations demands that we have faith in the possibility of receiving the message that is being passed on.

1:1 The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John: 1:2 Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all the things that he saw.

God gave the message to Jesus who gave it to his servants and to an angel who gave it to John who gives it to us. The message is relayed from the most high through the various levels of creation until it reaches us. Each movement away from God in this telephonic scheme must be accepted as a legitimate witness of Godís message. We must accept not only that this message came from God but also that Jesus, the angel, and Jesusí servants are legitimate witnesses of this message, since most of this message is delivered by the group designated as the servants of Jesus. But it is to John that we are told to pay greatest heed:

1:3 Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things that are written therein: for the time is at hand.

The legitimacy of the message is established; in this we must have faith, for the time is at hand. There is no room for hesitation. We must have faith that the message has not been distorted. John delivers the message spoken by the angel that came, without amendments, from God. Within the first three verses we are informed of the necessity of hearing this message. Either we receive or we are not worthy of receiving. The stakes are extremely high; we are not allowed a momentís hesitation. Those who do not hear the message instantly know that they have not been listening.

It is here that I reveal my own fear and trepidation; I do not understand this prophecy of multiplying and dividing voices and yet I am drawn to it. This book of last things insists that I receive its message and receive it now. But how am I to make sense of its intricate web of prophecies, words, songs, and texts that only the chosen can understand? How would one know that one was in fact one of the chosen? And how would one know, absolutely, without doubt or hesitation, that the text has in fact been properly received? Should I, when speaking of last things, just repeat what is written here? But how is repetition possible? In what tone was it written? In what voice do the various messengers speak? Perhaps I should merely pass on this text to those who have not yet received it. But how am I to avoid multiplying the division of voices? How am I to know that I had read it in the right way to begin with? How am I to know that the message I pass on is exactly the same as the one to be received? Is certainty possible? Who would take or ask another to take such a risk? But the sixth angel tells John to spread his message:

11:11 And he said unto me, Thou must prophecy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues and kings.

The message must be delivered so that those who will receive it are allowed to hear what they must hear in order to receive the gift of eternal life. But, since there is no certainty of receipt, what happens to those who fail to hear?

16:9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which have power over these plagues; and they repented not to give him glory. 10 And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain. 11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.

Despite their torments, those who fail to hear the message blaspheme the name of God. Indeed, they blaspheme because of their pains even though it is the name of God that can put an end to their torment. Those who do not hear fail to repent, even though this would put an end to their pain. To speak the name of God, it seems, without having heard the prophecy, is to blaspheme. The name of God has power over these plagues only for those who receive the message. Those who have not heard cannot repent; perhaps they try to speak the name of God, but their speech is marked by the beast. These gnawed tongues can only blaspheme; that which gives power gives them no power over that which torments them.

Voices, ears, books, and tongues seem to be already marked with the signs of destiny. There is no indication that one could escape oneís mark. Repentance seems to be already impossible. The division appears to have preceded the end. And this is not merely a fact of language. This division of voices overrides the multiplicity of tongues. Those who hear overcome the division between voice and tongue. They are of one voice beyond the plurality of tongues. And it is because of this voice that one is capable of receiving the message. This voice transcends problems of linguistics and translation, and therefore all attempts of philological explanation. Revelations does not pose a problem to be solved; rather, it presents those who would need a solution with a problem.

The problem with which we are presented, and of which the Bible has already warned - at the beginning in fact - is already familiar to us. Revelations tells us of the division of voices, but this division does not divide one voice; rather, it divides a multiplicity of tongues. Those who come to be of one voice are not of one tongue because - we are told in Genesis 11 - God confounded our language. In the beginning, we all spoke the same language. And in speaking the same language, we were capable of organizing in such a way that we became capable of doing anything that we imagined, including building a tower high enough to enter into heaven. Responding to this threat, God says:

Genesis 11:7 Go, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one anotherís speech. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

How are we to understand this text? Does it indicate that God is malicious, concerned only to preserve his hegemony? One would like to think that if we came together under a common tongue and attempted to reach heaven by sharing knowledge and technical ability, then we would have achieved an extremely desirable end. Indeed, is it not to this end that today we ask after the ends of knowledge? But isnít it also possible to read this passage according to a different logic, to read it in a manner that would accord with Revelations? Might not this passage have nothing to do with hegemony nor malicious intent?

That this passage can be read otherwise is no doubt obvious. The question is why God would desire to prevent us from reaching a common understanding that would enable us to reach heaven by our own means. The problem is the problem of how one enters into heaven. As we know from Revelations, entering heaven is a consequence of receiving the mark of the Father; it is not a consequence of grouping together under a common cause. To attempt to reach heaven by way of technical prowess might well be to forsake God.

Genesis 11:6 And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

The people have reached a common understanding, but not with God. Doesnít this indicate a division? Is it not possible that there is division at the heart of what is common, that there is already division at the heart of an understanding, that we are already divided in our understandings? But Genesis 11 says more than this. It is not just a case of our entering heaven without Godís understanding, it is more importantly the fact that "nothing will be restrained from" us, which we "have imagined to do." Could any words speak more directly to us, today? Entering heaven is only the beginning; it is the least of Godís worries. Entering heaven is merely a sign of what the future holds, merely an indication of what is possible, and we know only too well what is possible when we reach a common understanding. The divisions at the heart of our understandings cannot help but emerge, cannot be prevented from manifesting themselves in our imaginings. Is it this that God recognizes, and prevents by confounding our languages? Perhaps, but we know that God prevented nothing. Perhaps, then, the message is a moral lesson? But isnít it also possible that the message is precisely a warning against understanding, against proclaiming or worse still reaching a common accord? Couldnít this passage be asking us to remember that at the heart of every claim to understanding there is division, and that it is this division that should be kept in mind whenever we claim to have reached an understanding?

The Tower of Babel, then, would merely be the first of a series of divisions, the division at the origin, as it were. God multiplied our speech so as to prevent the manifestation of division amongst the people. The story, read thus, would indicate the opposite of our initial reading. God prevented the building of the Tower by multiplying languages so as to bring about the possibility of peace, a peace that could only be recognized once the inevitability of division was recognized.

This leads us back to Revelations and the problem of predestination. Revelations seems to indicate that the mark of the beast or of God precedes the actual events of the end and cannot be repented; that to utter Godís name if one bears the mark of the beast is to blaspheme, thus to fail to utter Godís name. It seems, then, according to my reading, that the division that God had prevented is finally manifest at the end and that this division was never prevented, that this unique division had survived the multiplication of tongues. The unique division that separates the people in Revelations is the division between those who receive Godís message and those that do not. But this seems to indicate that the division at the heart of all understanding has been overcome by a bifurcation of voices. It indicates that in the end there will be mutual understanding and an end to division. However, Revelations does not say this; it says the opposite:

 

19:11 And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war. 12 His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself. 13 And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called the Word of God.

 

Again, we have the repetition of what is becoming a common theme. We have yet another tongue, a written tongue, that may not be a tongue. The writing is that of God himself, which none but God can read. Thus, we encounter another division, a division that affects even those who are one in that they have understood! Indeed, this is the same division that led to the building of the Tower, the division between God and us.

What, then, are we being asked to understand? At each turn, we seem to encounter precisely that which would prevent understanding. The word continually overcomes meaning by introducing that which absolutely cannot be understood. Can we ever know that the word has not imbued the entire Bible with its peculiar power? Is it possible that Revelations does not overcome Babel?

13:6 And he [the beast] opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven. 7 And it was given unto him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given him over all kindreds, and tongues and nations. 8 And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the lamb slain from the foundation of the world. 9 If any man have an ear, let him hear.

Even the beast appears to have a power not granted to God. The beast has power over tongues; the beast has the power to make everyone worship him. Surely, this is a power that should be Godís.

Why does God not enable us to reach mutual understanding? Why doesnít God say what he wants to say plainly so that we can understand and thus be saved? Why is Godís Book filled with contradictions and paradox? How are we to discover what it is that we are being asked to hear, to overcome and to repent? How are we to approach this Book imbued from one end to the other with divided and multiplying voices? And what are we to do with these lines from Proverbs?

30:5 Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto those who put their trust in him. 6 Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.

What are we to make of the injunction against adding and subtracting when every word seems to hang on multiplying and dividing? What if we donít understand? Might it not be necessary to add a word of explanation? Must we, rather than seeking explanation, simply trust God, in the knowledge that his word is pure? But what does it mean to speak of a pure word? How are we to understand this? Would it be better not to understand and to trust God than to risk being a liar?

Is this the risk we run when we seek to understand God? Is this the risk I am running right now? The final verses of Revelations are more explicit:

22:18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book; if any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book. 19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things that are written in this book.

What hermeneut who had faith could dare risk an interpretation of these lines? What seeker after signs could risk the possibility that they had left something out or added something to this prophecy of last things? What hubris would entice someone to take such a risk? Perhaps I have now said enough, but this talk of adding and subtracting, multiplying and dividing, entices me to reconsider, lest it be assumed that I claim to understand. After all, it is possible that the injunction is not against interpretation, but against understanding. It is possible that those who hear are precisely those who do not understand and that hell-fire is preserved for those who do. It is possible that those who have eternal life and peace are those who never thought of putting an end to interpretation and misunderstanding. But is it not also possible that this opposition goes too far? Perhaps we must continue to read these passages not so as to understand, but so as to witness the eternal weave of Godís breath. Wouldnít an infinite God demand an infinite reading of Godís word? An infinite patience? An infinite perpetuity of a patience that would know itself to be only ever capable of recognizing a reading without end? The book of ends, of multiplying tongues and dividing voices, could only be a book of infinite interpretations, of infinite ends, of infinite patience and forgiveness, a book of infinite purity. A book of which misunderstanding becomes impossible by way of a recognition of the impossibility of understanding. And who would be willing to demand that such a recognition would not be the very end to which we aspire? And, perhaps more importantly, who would be willing to claim that this is not the case with every book, with every utterance, and with every encounter with the other?

In his story "The Library of Babel," which considers the universe as a library in which is contained all the possible permutations of a book written with 25 characters, 410 pages long, with 40 lines per page, and 80 characters per line, [first name?] Borges points out that such a library, though immense, would not be infinite.(2) At the end, however, he writes: "Perhaps my old age and fearfulness deceive me, but I suspect that the human species...is about to be extinguished, but the library will endure: illuminated, solitary, infinite, perfectly motionless, equipped with precious volumes, useless, incorruptible, secret."(3) And while this might be enough to send our minds into the abyss of our own futility, he continues:

I have just written the word "infinite." I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to say that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end - which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveller were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope. (4)

Needless to say the words of Borges that I have just read will already appear in his library, and not only within the context of his story, "The Library of Babel," but also within this paper that I believe myself to have written to present, here, today. So, too, the library will contain all the possible interpretations and translations of Borgesí story, of the Book of Revelations and of my paper, that is, if it warrants translation or interpretation, but then of course regardless. In the end, then, I, like Borges and John of Patmos, will have said nothing, which may well be the case anyway. But for this to be possible would it not be necessary to affirm, even to demand, the identity of the repetition, and thus, by way of the ultimate subtraction, the ultimate violence, the violence of the law of non-contradiction, to put an end to the multiplication and division of voices? But wouldnít this in turn necessarily lead us to the paradox of an additional end, of an end that would be one, of an end that would be one, of an end, finally, that would be won?

* The author wishes to thank the organizing committee of Strategies of Critique 11: The Ends of Knowledge or the Knowledge of Ends?, a graduate student conference held at York University, Toronto, Canada, in April 1997, where this paper was first presented. I would also like to thank the editorial collective of j_spot for their grammatical and technical prowess.

(1) All citations taken from the Bible, King Jamesí Version, Book of Revelations, unless otherwise noted. [back to text]

(2) Jorge Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel," trans. by James E. Irby, in Borges, Labyrinths (New York: New Directions Publishing Co., 1964). [back to text]

(3) Ibid., 58. [back to text]

(4) Ibid. [back to text]


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