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Reality by Chance

When a second observation connects to a first, it alters the sense. Whatever registers in consciousness, registers a difference—not only its own but also a difference in what came before.

Pea Stones

One of the supporting characters in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is a flashy lawyer who resolves to exonerate a woman accused of murder by using a simplified version of Heisenberg’s uncertainly principle. The harder the jury looks at the evidence, he will argue, the more the act of looking changes the evidence, rendering it ambiguous and leading to what he is ultimately after—reasonable doubt.


Reflecting on the significance of “reality” within representational modalities, Richard Shiff directs our attention to Roland Barthes’s discussion of the capacity of disjunctive or seemingly meaningless elements within a fictional narrative to foster the reader’s sense of its actuality.

As Chance Would Have It

It’s almost an aside in the essay Richard Shiff gave me to read as an incentive to “respond” to his piece in the Brooklyn Rail that prompted me to pick up on his invitation. The context is a discussion of chance and whether its outcome in a work of art is significant or insignificant.

The Luck of the Draw

Richard Shiff ends his essay, “Reality By Chance” (2014), on a proposition that concerns precariousness, understood rather more felicitously as the necessary condition for luck’s possible attainment

Comment on Richard Shiff’s argument on chance and reality

Richard Shiff takes up Roland Barthes’s argument that within the fictions of representation, chance elements such as “alluding to an object of no apparent narratological function” connote reality because—in Peirce’s words—“reality is chance and has no meaning.”

Twombly’s Sophistication

Roland Barthes found so intoxicating Cy Twombly’s “indolent” art of barely legible often obscene scratches and scrawls, scribbled graffiti markings loitering amid often brilliant smears of finger-applied color, that the critic in his last years, his friend and translator Richard Howard tells us, took up drawing and painting (gathered in a book published in Italy).

"The Ruses of Chance"

In 1975, Roland Barthes was asked by the French newspaper Le Monde to respond to three questions about the principle function of the intellectual in society. He concludes his reply by asking three questions of his own: “What would be the worth of a society that ceased to reflect upon itself? What would become of it? And how can we see ourselves except by talking to one another?” In our time, the many hours each day in which the “average user” spends on social media makes it appear as if our society is reflecting upon itself. Rather than ceasing to reflect, perhaps our cascading responses constitute the opposite: unceasing reflection. As for talking to one another and seeing ourselves by talking to one another, the platform would appear to extend possibilities as never before. Moreover, we can be whoever we want on this medium. The chance (all of chance) is ours. Except of course it isn’t.

Chance and the Punctum

When Richard asked me to read his essay “Reality by Chance,” and to write for this issue of the Rail, I focused on his paragraphs about the thinking of Roland Barthes. I was especially interested in Richard’s observation that both Richard himself and Barthes welcomed assignments that would shift the subjects of their thinking.

Chance encounters are my alibi

I was looking for something else when I came across this quote amongst my chaotic hills of clippings.

Pareidolia and Signifying the Insignificant

Pareidolia, or the perception of patterns in natural phenomena, can be lighthearted and imaginative.

"Hasards de la rime"

I recently found myself thumbing through a well-worn edition of Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (1857) and thinking about chance and accidental poetics.

REWIRING NORA: A Chance Encounter with Something Unknown

Nora, my Bernese Mountain Dog had many endearing traits; she would amble over and lean affectionately into my legs and I enjoyed having her lie down on my feet under my desk

Rorschachian Chance in Flow and Ebb

A certain 18th–century British aesthetician of classical ilk complained about the randomness of the stars, saying that the night sky could have been more beautiful had the stars been arranged in geometric patterns. The 19th–century logician Boole, a pioneer in mathematical probability (and digital computing), had more respect for the layout of the stars as by no means happenstance.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2019

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