Sunday, September 27, 2009

X, the Unknown

1. eXordium

Given a phenomenon that is intriguing and relevant -- yet subtle and not easily discernible -- what is the best way to describe said phenomenon? First ask for patient indulgence; a bit assuming but already done.

Next, try the highbrow approach by referring to something from the world's canon: The 2,500 year old classic of Eastern thought, the Tao TĂȘ Ching, says in its very first line, "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao itself." ....And then proceeds to explain "the Tao itself" for 5,000 words.

Herein is a similar conflict of method, of attempting to speak about The Unspeakable. In this postmodernish analysis, a Lovecraftian Horror may take on Derrida's "Undecidability."

Finally, for the case to be presented, the likes of Carl Jung, Philip K. Dick, and Alfred North Whitehead must mix with the artifacts of lowbrow Pop Culture.

All the disparate pieces of "X" will be flung into view; like the facets of a diamond, taken together they form a whole. The "X" is a gestalt.

2. eXamples

Under the entry for the letter "X" in dictionaries and encyclopedias:

Twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet.
Roman numeral for 10.
Signifies an unknown quantity or variable.
A sign indicating multiplication, dimensions, power of magnification.
Often stands for Christ, Christian; Xmas for Christmas.
Denotes a film recommended for adults only. Rated "X."
Used to indicate a kiss.
To indicate a choice, as on a ballot.
To indicate an error, as on a test.
A legal signature by an illiterate person.
In Mathematics, the x-axis.
In Chess, captures.
Originally an abbreviation for the Arabic shei, meaning "something;"
during the Middle Ages was transcribed xei and was used to mean "unknown."

"X" represents a person, thing, agency, factor, etc., of unknown identity.

The X is a crossroads, an intersection.

X marks a target, X-Rays, the female X chromosome.

There is Generation X, and they play "eXtreme sports."

In comic books and movies is the popular X-Men, featuring mutants, X-People, with "extra" abilities.

Many "sci-fi" movies from the fifties had titles like, The Man From Planet X, and X, The Unknown. The phenomenon of the hit television series The X-Files manifests an attitude in the zeitgeist that Things Are Not What They Seem; millennial jitters, a primordial fear of the unknown.

But the connection need not literally be the letter of the alphabet; there's no link with ex-wives, Ex-Lax®, Xerox®, or Xerxes I, King of Persia.

Rather esoterically, in a deck of Tarot cards the Two of Swords shows a woman holding up two blades, thus forming an X, and meaning conflict, often interior. [This is inaccurate, to be fixed.]

Primarily its role is metaphorical. In mythology this agent for change is personified by the recurring Joker/Fool/Clown character, and the Trickster of Native American belief, and the folklore of gremlins, elves, things that go bump in the night.

Oblique illustrations of it permeate pop culture. In movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey it is represented by the Monolith, and in Pulp Fiction it appears as the briefcase with the never-disclosed glowing contents.

Advertising imagery overflows with connotations of the "X."

There is the archetypal television commercial:

Across an enormous dark expanse, an indiscernible object -- a radiant chimera -- streaks by. A resonant female voice says, "The path to the future. Our future, your future." The specter is like an angelic laser beam, an otherworldly technology. "Taking you forward, getting you there -- is the Nexus." Speed becomes form as it stops on a dime: a silver passenger car. Flash on the manufacturer's logo.

Quiet and implicit, as if embedded subliminally (though rarely accompanied by eldritch laughter), lurks the "X".

3. eXegesis

"X" is simply a metaphor for the abstract concept of change.

It's an agent of the dialectic, causing things to move forward or backward; the thesis and antithesis together in an evolving synthesis.

It is a ubiquitous sign -- symbol and icon.

It shows up in our environment via the psychological mechanism of projection.
In 1958 Carl Jung examined the '50's phenomenon of "flying saucers" as a modern myth. (Volume 10 of his Collected Works, and published separately as Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies.) He saw the psychic aspect of UFO's as imagery emanating from the collective unconscious.

The indefinite objects, typically round or disk-shaped, had the archetypal form of the circle -- and the mandala of the East -- symbols of unity, wholeness. Perhaps, he thought, this was a mass vision arising from humanities' desire for peace and unity during the Atomic Cold War.

In a time of rapid change, with the promises and threats of technologies such as computers, genetics, and warfare -- plus the mutually-arising conflicts in cultures, economies, and politics -- there is a new infusion of strange "events:" Aliens and angels, ghosts, black helicopters, images of a virgin in tortillas, crop circle graffiti doodles.... Goofy and loony ideas, yes, but stemming from real feelings.

We know instinctively that something unforeseeable is hurtling toward us: our future -- a world unlike one we have ever known. Our apprehensive expectations take many forms; a boiling liquid becomes steam escaping in odd ways.

Marshall McLuhan talked about the 20th century's global village of electronic speed-up, instantaneous communication. The feedback process becomes visible. The "X" symbol manifests as, frequently, consumer product: car, clothing, haircut, hi-tech gadget, deodorant, movie, guy, girl -- the thing -- you need.


The Holy Grail.

The Ultimate Answer.


Philip K. Dick's novel Ubik played with this theme. In a speech titled, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later," Dick pointed out a funny translation for that book's German edition, which rendered the original sentence of Ubik's "I am the word," as, "I am the brand name."

The Logos as Brand Name... Brand X.

X is a media virus.

Genetic traits are transmitted by genes; the socio-biologist Richard Dawkins proposes that ideas are spread by memes -- akin to a "contagious idea." Across the datasphere, the world's circulatory system, the X-Meme replicates, iterates; proliferating and insinuating everywhere.

X is the undecidable, a term used by Jacques Derrida, the "father" of Deconstruction. By definition, the X is not one definite thing; like a Zombie, it's neither alive or dead; or like a photon, it's both a particle and a wave.


X is the manifestation of novelty -- a situation of greater connectedness, complexity, and negentropic organization. This novelty figures into the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead in his Process and Reality.

X is the Wild Card, the catalyst.


Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Like the Monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, it remains unknown. To quote Clarke, Kubrick, and Floyd (Heywood, not Pink): "....Its origin and purpose, still a total mystery."

X is a turning point, a boundary, an edge.

Like the Event Horizon of a black hole.

X is a singularity.

X is a semiotic ghost, a sign with a shifting referent; the sign itself changes too.

X is the incursion of The Other, the new and different. Flux and flow.

X is an immanent force. The harbinger of change... present at a sharp turn, a paradigm shift.

X is the cause. Hidden or explicit.

And the X is ambiguous.

In one of his last public lectures, the late philosopher, essayist, ethno-botanist, and underground legend, Terence McKenna said, in his characteristically nasally, nerdy, yet compelling voice:

"....History being the shockwave of a future event. Chaos Theory talks about the Strange Attractor. Maybe that's the influence of the Attractor -- impinging upon us, pulling at us. The End-Point in the future, sending reverberations, echoes of itself, backward in time -- affecting us now. The Transcendental Object at the end of time, bringing itself into existence...."

In the poetic sense, each of us is an X -- the unfathomed depths of the human mind and heart and all that -- unknowable to others if not ourselves.

Perhaps ultimately the X is infinite.

The symbol for infinity is the figure-eight on its side --

-- technically called the lemniscate, like this:

And at the center...


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