This term, coined by the philosopher Jacques Derrida (1998), was used in the context of his search for meaning beyond words and lines of text as follows:
“the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed.” (Derrida 1998).
I started to think about what Derrida could mean at a more academic level. However, he is known for his opaque style of writing that allows many different interpretations, borne out of his overriding principle that it should be impossible to determine his views through his writing. So, my task to seek to understand this small yet, for me, hugely significant phrase is not an easy one.
I decide to listen to The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C Clarke (1967). I was very taken by the story of the request by a Tibetan Monastery for an Automatic Sequence Computer to complete work that had already taken three centuries to establish the nine billion names of God by recording all the permutations of nine letters. The lama explained the task to Dr Wagner as follows:
“Call it ritual, if you like, but it’s a fundamental part of our belief. All the many names of the Supreme Being — God, Jehovah, Allah, and so on — they are only man-made labels. There is a philosophical problem of some difficulty here, which I do not propose to discuss, but somewhere among all the possible combinations of letters that can occur are what one may call the real names of God. By systematic permutation of letters, we have been trying to list them all.”
“I see. You’ve been starting at AAAAAAA… and working up to ZZZZZZZZ….”
“Exactly — though we use a special alphabet of our own. Modifying the electromatic typewriters to deal with this is, of course, trivial. A rather more interesting problem is that of devising suitable circuits to eliminate ridiculous combinations. For example, no letter must occur more than three times in succession.”
“Three? Surely you mean two.”
“Three is correct: I am afraid it would take too long to explain why, even if you understood our language.”
Two engineers from the chosen company were dispatched to Tibet to assist the monks in their task, producing huge printouts of the remaining permutations that had previously taken them many years to compute. The monks painstakingly pasted each permutation into large books.
As their work comes closer to its completion the lama responds to a question from one engineer about the purpose of their work as follows:
“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names — and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them — God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.
“Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?”
“There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up… bingo!”
“Oh, I get it. When I finish our job, it will be the end of the world.”
The two engineers come up with a plan to enable them to leave the monastery, travel down through the mountains and be in sight of the airport before the final run of the nine billion names of God are completed. As they near the waiting aeroplane, they look back at the monastery and “Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”
So, what has Arthur C Clarke’s short story got to do with Derrida and deconstruction and indeed my photographic practice? As the stars go out the experiential world disappears. The senses, experiences and perceptions of our world, the veil of presence, are removed.
And moving on to my photographic practice this is exactly what I am trying to do. In Derrida’s terms, I am deconstructing the scene in front of me, I strip away the sensory experience by choosing times when the weather conditions are at their worst. I reduce the prominence of the subject in my images to diminish signification. I choose insignificant, or rather asignificant (neutral), aspects of the landscape such as the small lone tree or the reeds in the loch, and I shy away from the significant presence of the Black Cuillin.
Returning to the unnameable glimmer, what did Derrida mean?! Unnameable, suggests that there is no suitable label for the glimmer, there is no word to describe it. The ultimate deferral is unnameable. The end of deferment is being rather than presence, and although we can be aware of being, we are not able to experience it. This suggests that it is possible to become aware of the unnameable glimmer that sits behind the veil of presence. And maybe, like Derrida in terms of his words and texts, I do not wish to privilege experience and presence in my image making.
Clarke, A. C. (1967). Nine Billion Names of God. San Diego, Harcourt.
Derrida, J. (1998). Of Grammatology. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.