What school of philosophy worthy of its name has not warred against the present? The present, the now, has been demystified and shown up in a hundred different ways. It is the vanishing point, the scapegoat, the zero of metaphysics. It sticks in the throat the way zero, too, once stuck in the throat. And zero, too, is a hallmark of modernity. The ancients did not have zero. The Babylonians had a placeholder that allowed them to represent zero, but it was only a placeholder. It was analogous to the decimal point, which is not itself a number. Zero was a gift from the East – George Ifrah, in his book on numbers, dates the birth of zero to 458 in the Lokavibhaga. From there it traveled to China and Southeast Asia, and to Central Asia. In Baghdad, Al Khwarizmi (780-850), who founded algebra – or at least picked up the stray pieces of mathematical knowledge and put them in a book - used Hindu numbers. According to Michel Soutif, “Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa wrote a treatise of arithmetic, the Liber Abacci, in 1202. This work, which would play a driving role during the XIIIth century, describes the
« Novem figurae Indorum” with the 0 sign that the arabs call “zephyrum”. The long adventure of zero in the West can be said to conclude in 1898, when Peano substituted zero for one in his list of the five primitive notions in mathematics, about which he said: “All systems which satisfy the five primitive propositions are in one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers”. Of course, long before 1898, it was realized that nothing comes of nothing, which is precisely the use of nothing, and every schoolboy knew how to draw the zero, multiply with it, add with it, etc. And every engineer as well. We had already begun to build the artificial paradise on the foundation of the zero.
We can call zero a notion or an idea, or we can call it a devise. A devise is a thing, but it is also the affordances of a thing – it is not only what the French call a truc, but it is also what Americans call a “deal”, or a “trick” (“the trick of the x is that it does such a such”). The deal and the trick follow in the enchanted train of the trope, the turn. The ancients didn’t have a notion of zero as a natural number, but they did know all about shapeshifters, magicians, and how the dead can be brought back to life – from beyond the zero, as Pynchon puts it in Gravity’s Rainbow, where the trick is that extinguished reflexes live again when they are whispered to by the unearthly elements, the synthetics, the witch’s brew, the chemistry of zero.
From this point of view, a history of devises – a history of technology – would be a history of tricks. David Edgerton, one of the leading historians of technology, has criticized the field for identifying technology with innovation, or invention, when, he claims, technology is about use. To emphasize this clain, he gave one of his books the title, “The Shock of the Old”. In it, he turns the readers attention to the utterly mixed nature of modern technology, in which, contrary to those historians that saw one technology after another inaugurate speeded up ages (of steam, of petroleum, of biotech, of information, etc.), old tech and new tech coexist. The age of the auto in the twentieth century was also the age of the greatest use of horses in any war, in the Nazi invasion of Europe, where the Germans alone employed 2 million horses. The age of the internet in the 21st century saw Osama bin Laden escape on a pony (or a stallion) from Tora Bora, and U.S. GIs relearn horseback riding whilst carrying telecommunications that allowed precision aerial bombing.
Edgerton’s title takes its wit from the word “shock”, which has come to be canonically associated with modernism and the new, and was used by Robert Hughes as the title of his book (The Shock of the New). Shock is modernism’s trick, its deal, its now, where the zero comes into play. It is worth examining the notion of the shock, then, for it forms a kind of model whose elements come into play in the industrial experience of the accident and – significantly – alienation in all its distressing wonders.
In Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino’s The Shocking History of Electrical Fishes (notice, again, that shock is charged, here, with a certain irony – as though its metamorphosis through the popular press, which hung shock on crime, or on truth, or on any sensation, had created a certain self-refective numbness), there is a quotation from Galen about the torpedo, a fish that seemed to fascinate the Greeks
Some [physicians] even believe that, through the action of their power (dunamei), some matters could alter nearby bodies by simple contact. Such a nature is encountered in the sea torpedoes. They have a power so that that, through the trident of the fishermen, the alteration is transmitted to the hand, which soon gets numbed (narkison).”
That numbness has already been recorded in the Meno, where Socrates is compared to the torpedo, which numbs those who come in contact with it. Similarly, Meno says that he is ‘benumbed in my soul and my mouth…”
These instances of numbing, however, seem to elide the moment of the simple contact, or moment of shock. In Finger and Piccolini’s account, they helpfully comment on the numbing sensation that is referenced over and over with the term shock – but the term in play, up through the medieval period, is always some variant of numbing, or stupefying. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century, as various electrical devises, such as the Leyden Jar, ‘condensed’ electricity to the point that people could control electric shock to an extent that numbness began to be replaced by the more naked word shock. In Samuel Johnson’s poem for the death of Stephen Grey, the “electrician” – one of the scientists most interested in the qualities of the electric fluid – shock has replaced numbness and become a sort of cosmological element:“No more shall Art thy dexterous hand require,
To break the sleep of elemental fire;
To rouse the power that actuates Nature's frame,
The momentaneous shock, the electric flame;
The flame which first, weak pupil to thy lore,
I saw, condemn'd, alas! to see no more.”
Johnson was the last person on earth who wanted to break the sleep of elemental fire if it meant overturning the design of the classical universe presided over by a loving deity, and pervaded by the forces discovered by the Greeks and refined upon by the moderns. But his images betray him. They carry us irresistibly to Blake, Shelley, and romantic science: “the dextrous hand”, “Nature’s frame” and most particularly, the “momentaneous shock”.