point, sign, daimonion
Σημεῖόν ἐστιν, οὗ μέρος οὐθέν.
That a point (semeion) is that which has no part is the declaration of Euclid’s first “definition”, a Platonic resonance of which I want to activate, following Badiou closely.
A point is that which does not partake, which takes no share, which takes nothing of a share, nothing except the sign, nothing, that is, except the sign nothing, devoid of function, except, perhaps the function of a void coming to name.
A point is that which does not participate, but which can therefore reveal the relation of participation that the world hides; the point is thus a counter-participatory indication of the Idea, with all of its aporiai, a figure of the much-maligned “separation” (chorismos) without which participation is meaningless.
Socrates’ divine sign (το τοῦ θεοῦ σημεῖον, perhaps also the more frequent daimonion as understood to modify semeion rather than as a substantive) is punctual in just these senses. This pure “no” cuts the continuum of experience and action without partaking of the bounded ambiguity of the ordinary, even so far as the most basic taking-part in existence – love of life and fear of dying. To Socrates, this unsought halting point carries an immediately ethical charge, but it is not simply on the side of life, of his own or any life. It interrupts the continuous intentional flow and feedback on which the need-driven loops of perception/action depend. This jouissance of the idea is closer to the drive, even (blatantly) to the death-drive, than to the (apparent?) needs of life*:
…while there is time. I feel that you are my friends, and I wish to show you the meaning of this which has now happened to me. For, judges—and in calling you judges I give you your right name—a wonderful thing has happened to me. For hitherto the customary prophetic monitor always spoke to me very frequently and opposed me even in very small matters, if I was going to do anything I should not; but now, as you yourselves see, this thing which might be thought, and is generally considered, the greatest of evils has come upon me; but the divine sign did not oppose me either when I left my home in the morning, or when I came here to the court, or at any point of my speech, when I was going to say anything; and yet on other occasions it stopped me at many points in the midst of a speech; but now, in this affair, it has not opposed me in anything I was doing or saying. What then do I suppose is the reason? I will tell you. This which has happened to me is doubtless a good thing, and those of us who think death is an evil must be mistaken. A convincing proof…
The sign/point has no profile itself, and interrupts the continuous unfolding of the world, but it is just the opposite of being without significance for the world. To the contrary, it is experienced as a transcendent imperative – not a positive one (as per Kierkegaard’s Abraham) but a negative one. In this lies not a weakness – negativity is not “mere” negativity – but the rescue of the Good from terrorism. It is only its own life that it puts at hazard. Yet it is a consequential negation that is not dissolved, even in retrospect, by the circumstances which generate and explain it; rather it contextualizes its context, differs from the whole order of differences. In this, I think, lies its alterity (called divinity) and its absolute negativity.
Unquilting-point (not “limit”) of the world, place of mortal danger and divine chance (ale-theia), momentary place of the principles, the divine sign/point distills into two aspects an unconditioned decision and an undecidable, making them refer to each other without mediation. Its two sides, its lack and excess with respect to the measured adumbration of things, are the unexpected halt in the one aspect, and sheer infinite regress in the other. Socrates halts unexpectedly, because he experiences a question which, failing to terminate, is truer than its answers, a question that makes a hole in the world, and gives the lie to the world’s apparent plenitude (the presupposition of the action to be undertaken) in favor of a constitutive but apparently useless work in which worlds themselves are woven and unwoven.
I would emphasize that “sign” (semeion) in “the divine sign” is far from a neutral placeholder. If the word is often elided (one hears simply of the daimonion) it’s because its negativity is so pure as to side easily out of nomination. It is faithful to elide it, but not to replace it with any other word. “Sign” is the word. Sign of what? Sign of itself? Sign of nothing? Even those readings, which are still far from the Form of the Good, have more going for them than “sign of the divine presence”. The divine sign is not a sign because it’s divine; it’s divine because it really is a sign, that is, a point (semeion) in what might well have been an atonic world. It’s the mutation of life by meaning (which, if we’re going to be honest, was not exactly what life wanted under the heading “meaning of life”). It’s nothing less than the Socratic form of the appearance of the nothing (Heidegger, Sartre) or the fixation of the void (Badiou). Badiou has advised us to pay attention to the by-no-means-guaranteed existence of the points of a world in Logiques des mondes. It’s by virtue of his reminder that I recognize as vital the relation already in play among divine sign, sign per se, and point in the classical texts.
*Finally (but this must be developed elsewhere, in a reading of the Republic and Philebus) I think this is because it is structurally necessary that life be risked in each case for the possibility of another jouissance, of a different beyond-the-pleasure-principle, even that which shows up in the apparently local reversal of calculation-of-pleasure, pleasure-of-calculation.