A short piece of writing on our infinities: Gazing toward the stars, we discovered an infinite external universe. Looking inward, we recognized the capacity to hold multiple infinities in the grasp of our understanding. In our everyday life we attribute high value to things that exude a feeling of immortality. While some things we manufacture are meant to be ephemeral, in things of quality, we want something about them to last forever.
In thinking about infinities, and by this, I’m really referring to Tim Morton’s idea of very large finitudes, I was drawn in by the great plastic vortex in the Pacific ocean. This is location, created by ocean currents, where large deposits of granulated plastic swirl in an endless gyre. “Plastic” means something that can be molded, “plastic” is plastic. Not only can plastic take any shape, it can have a high level of durability while in use. The “mold-ability” of metals on the one hand and plaster on the other, find a mid-point in plastic. Plastic is a neutral material that functions like a simile. The plastic is like leather, it functions like ceramic, it gives the appearance of wood grain. Plastic never appears to us as plastic, it’s always “like” something else.
Plastic becomes itself again when it’s discarded. It’s no longer “like” anything; it “is” plastic. Different kinds of plastic have different lifespans. Some plastic, plastic bags for instance, have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. A plastic bottle, on the other hand, has a lifespan of 300 to 500 years. The “use” of a plastic bottle may occur over 30 minutes, the time it takes to drink a soda or some filtered water. If that plastic bottle is part of the eight million tons of garbage that reaches the ocean every day, it may go on to have a long life as a piece of bottle-shaped plastic.
In the world of literature, we talk about immortal works. Art is long, but life is short. “Words” also have a plastic quality, they can be selected and sequenced in such a way to conjure up almost anything. The word “elephant” isn’t an elephant, but it can cause the reader to register neurological activity that is “like” that of seeing an actual elephant. We can even use words to describe things like an infinite series of numbers. Here we register neurological activity of something that we can’t actually see.
But much like the plastic bottle, texts have a lifespan. They aren’t immortal. On leap day of this year, philosopher Graham Harman shared some thoughts about the lifespan of books:
Books have a much, much higher childhood death rate than people. If a book makes it to age 21 and is still being discussed and still changing career paths, then it’s obviously a huge success.
I’m a great believer in classic books, but not at all a believer in “immortal” books. Plato will not be read one million years from now, though under certain scenarios he might still be read in another 2000 or 5000 years.
You can’t do “immortal” work because that’s quite impossible. The human species will probably be turning into something rather different that won’t much care about most of our supposedly immortal books and empires.
That said, there’s still a big difference between writing a book that’s readable for 3 years versus one that’s readable for 20, 50, or 500 years. That’s the scale on which very high-quality work announces itself as opposed to more transient period pieces– not the non-existent immortal scale.
In the age of the digital network, the ephemeral seems to gain a kind of immortality. Publishing written words is almost as simple as speaking. Once published to the Network, whatever it is, is there forever. And theoretically, it is findable via some method of search. In this sense, this immortal ephemera is like the plastic bottle–useful for a short amount of time, but possibly destined to a very long after life. Perhaps it is also swirling about in the gyre of some immense database. However, there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of life of a work that Graham Harman discusses and the life of a tweet saved forever in a networked database server.
When we discuss economies of abundance in the digital age, we’re assuming the low-cost production of very large finitudes. Plastic is this kind of thing, it’s the least expensive physical simile for a large range of objects. It also has the strange quality of sometimes having a lifespan that is five or six times that of an ordinary human. In this ecological age where we are newly surrounded by economies of abundance, what shall we do with our infinities? We can no longer send them away when we’ve annihilated distance through technology. The plastic as “plastic” waves to us from the gyres in the ocean. It will swirl there for our children and our children’s children. What ever shall we do with our infinities?