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Negative twenty questions modernism

Negative twenty questions modernism

There’s a party game called twenty questions. One person goes out of the room, and the people in the room then discuss among themselves and choose an object in the room. Then the person is recalled, and he asks the people in the room up to twenty questions – classically, of the kind : is it bigger than a breadbox – in order to guess the object. John Wheeler, the physicist, spun off another game that he claimed was closer to the quantum world, or what at least it meant to investigate the quantum world. The structure of sending a person outside of the room remains constant. What this person doesn’t know, however, is that in this version of the game, all the people in the room pick their objects and don’t speak to each other. When the questioner is called in and asks the questions – for instance, is it bigger than a breadbox – the person who answers changes the object, in as much as his reply makes the other people in the room silently repick their object. So say x has chosen a matchbox and y has chosen a sofa, if the questioner asks x if it is bigger than a breadbox (to which x says no), then y has to quickly chose some other object (which may be the matchbox or may be a match, etc) in order to remain consistent with the line of questioning.

There is something rather eerie about Wheeler’s game of negative twenty questions. It produces a community that is founded not on addresses and maps, but on being lost – on a continual re-matching of addresses and maps, a battlefield in which inconsistency is the rule and consistency is continually catching up. The game brings into focus a certain modernist other – a modernist fantastic, stretching from Balzac’s Le peau de chagrin to Freud’s Der Unheimlich. This is the modernism in which the rules of reason overcome and mug reason, which becomes, simply, a way of having rules. And that way of having rules obeys a rule that makes the outcome of rule following radically uncertain. None of the players can predict it.

Freud, eventually, found his way out of the red light district in Rome he kept compulsively finding himself in. In Balzac’s tale, a curse and power is written on an onyx’s skin.  The Wild Ass’s Tale, written when Balzac was coming out of his apprenticeship in pulp novels, is considered the first novel in the vast Human Comedy universe. Here is the premise of the book, unrolled at the very beginning, when we follow Raphaël de Valentin, a poor student, as he walks about in a fever, waiting for night to come so he can throw himself off a bridge. In the course of his wandering, he comes upon a shop full of odds and ends, and in it he finds a mysterious talisman made of onyx hide. The talisman is inscribed with a phrase in Arabic. Balzac, that master of cod learning, reproduces it and allows Raphael the knowledge to read the “Sanskrit”, as the owner of the odd shop calls it. promises to make the wishes of the person who uses it come true. “If you possess me, you will possess all. But your life belongs to me. God wills it. Desire, and your desires will be realized. But regulate your wishes according to your life. It is there. For every wish, I will shrink, like your days. Do you want me? Take me. God grants it to you. So be it!” And so the desire for fortune, the want realized, is paid for in kind – by a counter-gift of the days of one’s life. The talisman is the very image of one way of looking at the almost magical supply of goods and services that already, in 1830, could be felt on the horizons. The culture of growth never shakes off Nemesis, who balances and casts an evil eye on the “too much”. The balance between desire and lifespan, here, is encoded in an object whose material existence is the very correspondent of the material existence of its user. This isn’t exactly addiction. It is more like the guessing in Wheeler’s game, where the object keeps changing as the guesses multiply. In Raphaël’s case, of course, there’s a romance – a mystery beauty named Foedora, whose allure is heightened, in that Balzacian way, by her wealth, which is exactly measured – somehow, everybody knows she her networth is 80,000 francs.

Foedora - what a name! A perfect name for a silent movie star. One imagines her slinking expressionistically into some crooked room in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

Wheeler’s game was supposed to get to some scientific truth about quantum theory – a way of making us understand the role of measurement. The hole in the game is, of course, that it is unclear what it would mean to win it, and how winning could be agreed upon by a community that is so radically atomized that its objects are private.

An image for political philosophers, surely -  but one only a novelist could love.