November 21, 2015

State What You Have Done Throughout Your Lifetime

The Office (1966), documentary short by Krzysztof Kieslowski.


Bureaucracy is not a metaphor for some other aspect of the human condition.

In his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, Paul Valéry reminds his readers that one thing may take the place of any other, and that indeed it is the very definition of a thing, that its form is both temporary and contingent. A thing may also be defined by its tangibility, and by the fact that it cannot be removed—even by decomposition—from material space. All things belong to all and, over time, become them.

The physical world consists of exchanges of matter taking place at every scale, and this same process—exchange—is what joins living material to the inanimate landscapes through and against which it exists. No given state of material existence is definitive.  On the contrary, materiality is defined by flux. Some states are more stable than others, over certain periods of time and under certain relative conditions, but no state, and no organization of matter, is permanent.

And you? You know you are not permanent, but do you concede the interchangeability of matter? Does it matter whether you concede? Humans have long objected, and today as much as ever, to the interchangeability of humans. We know that persons are not mere things—at minimum they are living things, collections of matter engaged in the process of life—and we know that each instantiation of this process is unique: space and time make it so. But couldn’t the same be said of any non-living thing? Space and time make it so. Or does life change something? What is life?

Mathematics, without concern for life, distinguishes between what is discrete and what lies upon a continuum. The infinity of real numbers, for example, is larger than the infinity of integers, for the simple reason that the former infinity includes the latter (but not the other way around). Likewise any whole, however finely divided, must exceed the sum of its parts. The parts are also relative wholes, and whatever further division may be made of them, they, too, are greater in their wholeness than the multitudes they contain.

Valéry’s contemporary (and fellow Symbolist) Marcel Schwob wrote1 that every living thing is distinct and every dead thing indistinguishable. What is in process, in other words, is a continuum, and becomes discrete as soon as the process ends. The end of a life implies, roughly speaking, a division: something has been separated from something else—not, however, a soul from a body, but rather a process from the organization it had cultivated and sustained. The body, that is, is both whole and part. In process, and at every stage of life, it is a whole, and distinct from other bodies; its process once concluded, however, it becomes a part. It is still to some extent—and briefly—a record of the life it was, but soon it will bear less resemblance to the self it harbored than to other bits of matter, of whatever provenance, whether model or landscape, component or device.

A record more resembles another record than the life that it records, and what you have done resembles (mostly, mostly) what others have done, will do. Lives, however, on the scale at which we encounter them, are continua, while records are discrete—and the record of a life, no matter how total or precise, can never be identical to the life itself. True, the one infinity may not be so much larger than the other, but for infinity the thinnest of margins, even the infinitesimal, is more than enough.

This is so, we believe, even without recourse to metaphor.




"Étonne-toi de toute chose ; car toute chose est différente dans la vie et semblable dans la mort."

“Be in awe of all things, for all things are distinct in life and alike in death.”


  1. Schwob, Marcel. Le Livre De Monelle. Paris: Léon Chailley, Éditeur, 1894.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: