Oh, Infinite Stream of Data and Light

We live, increasingly, in a world ruled by data. Countless rituals in our lives are tethered, umbilically, to a set of gadgets through which a smooth river of data brings us good news, bad news, flirtations, tasks, financial debits, credits. This stream brings us, in some odd sense, our lives.

These little machines, these data portals, are—like us—finite and mortal. Their memories are vast, but limited. The data they access and open into our lives, however, can be potentially infinite. They buffer their numerically coded information into our line of sight for a moment before it disappears, like an invisible snakeskin that’s always being shed and grown anew.

Our bodies aren’t built to understand this data, but Japanese sound artist (and former club DJ) Ryoji Ikeda has made repeated attempts to give sense to this flood. “The Transfinite,” his most recent multimedia project—on display earlier this month at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory—confronts viewers with a “datamatic” sound and light show that promises to reveal the shadows of the infinite that ghost the data passing through our lives. Ikeda pledges that his “symphony” will deliver no less than the transcendental, the sublime, pure awe, the “vast magnitude of the universe.”

The chariot leading us to these destinations takes mathematical form: a sensual display of transfinite numbers—numbers that are greater than finite numbers, yet which vary in size. Ikeda describes the transfinite as, “the infinite that is quantitative and ordered.” One transfinite number can be larger than another. It is infinity, in other words, made measurable, scalable.

But can the infinite be convincingly harnessed into a gallery space? I was prepared to approach this exhibit with skepticism. And yet, within moments of walking into the Armory’s drill hall—once a playground for military exercises—I was instantly hypnotized by Ikeda’s awe-machine.

Visitors enter the dark, gargantuan room and take up postures of reverence in front of a massive screen, which towers 40 feet above them. They take off their shoes at the edge of the white floor—the sort used in dance studios—laid across the room’s stripped wooden floorboards. They sit down in front of the screen with legs crossed, rapt in attention. Some lay flat on their backs. Others press their bodies up against the vertical screen and let the sound and light play over them. Strips of black and white flash across the screen in varying configurations, loosely attuned to the jumbled low and high frequency tones emanating from the loudspeakers placed, like a stone circle, around the exhibit. The other side of the screen is covered with a data feed of 0s and 1s—binary code, writing out hefty data sets culled from sources like NASA and the Human Genome Project across the blank surface. Digits burst onto, and flow across, the massive screen, flooding it to the very edge.

Some of these sequences (information from the genome) are large, but finite. From what I can gather, Ikeda is simply trying to overwhelm the viewer’s perception with a scale of data that can’t be comprehended, that bring us up against the our own finite limits, where the infinite teases sensually at our fringes. He wants to make the infinite actual, and sensible, to us. For a body, sitting still in the midst of this symphony, it’s almost impossible not to get lost, not to be given over to the sensation of an almost magical mathematical more-than-human. The sound gets in through the ears and the throat, and through whatever touches the humming floor. The play of simple images, in the dark, eases you into a cognitive surrender—a kind of blissful stupidity.

It’s stunning. But, even as I sat exultant, barefoot, and cross-legged in the middle of the room for almost an hour, the net effect left me disconcerted. Never mind the fact that the ghosts of marching soldiers already haunt the 50,000-square-foot hall. What troubled me, as I attempted to wade out of my rapturous idiocy, was the infinite itself. Where was it?

Beautiful news was assaulting my senses: the chemical base pairs of human DNA, instructions commanding a rocket launch to the moon. But strings of 0s and 1s, humanly indistinguishable from these, also animate every filament of computer electronics—from the animal-like androids we keep as pets to the military drones that the Pentagon now deploys (in lieu of human bodies) into treacherous enemy terrain. If one of those combative digits had slipped in, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Toward what reverent forms of surrender was Ikeda’s awe-machine goading me?

This felt, suddenly, like a kind of violation. I wanted a way out. I wanted to imagine something more powerful—more unreachable, more unimaginable, and more extremely infinite than this flow of data before me. I wanted some kind of anchor in the waters outside of it that might turn down, or wash out, the volume of these seductions. Something that might make this vastness before me more clearly finite, like my own small frame, which shook from the sounds blasting through the speakers.

What I was feeling, perhaps, was a kind of nostalgia for an old philosophical distinction. The infinite, Aristotle argued, was possible in the world only potentially, but not actually. The natural numbers, for example, are potentially infinite because there is no end to them. Start counting at one and you can go on forever. Their infinity, however, isn’t actual. You never actually arrive at the forever you’re counting toward.

Taking a cue from Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas marked off the actual infinite as God’s realm. Everything else could approach the infinite only in a potential sense. This allowed for a sharp distinction between the immaterial, disembodied infinite of his immortal God, who was worthy of worship, and the finite world of embodied mortals, who were to do the worshipping.

The scene changed radically, for the infinite, with emergence of the mathematician Georg Cantor, who laid the foundations of modern set theory at the end of the 19th century. Cantor argued that there is, in fact, such a thing as the actual infinite; the infinite can indeed be something that mathematicians treat as real, rather than simply an unbounded potential. The infinite, in other words, can be quantified and ordered. It is this shift that led to the elaboration—in set theory—of transfinite numbers.

I’m not often sympathetic to positions like Aquinas’. I like matter, I like bodies, I like to imagine that there is no pure mortality or immortality, finitude or infinity—that there are only strange, hybrid fusions. But, when faced with the specter of a techno-consumerist product, animated by, exuding, seducing me with an endless stream of data, I find Aquinas’ position comforting. He sets an anchor outside of any force, or flow, that might appear to blast the infinite into actuality. Any sensual, sensible, suggestion that appears to claim infinite power, infinite potential, is always false.

Or is it?

The mathematician Kurt Gödel—considered the heir to Cantor’s set theory—suggested that we have a kind of mathematical intuition. This was different from, but parallel to, sense perception. He thought it might allow us to develop an intuitive sense of a mathematical concept like infinity. We might, with our minds, reach out and “touch” the infinite. But, crucially, the knowledge we get when we come into intuitive contact with the infinite is incomplete—it is not immediate, or exact. The data is not exhaustive. We can intuit the infinite, but some aspect or angle always escapes the finite limits of our intuitions.

I think it’s safe to say that Ikeda’s awe-machine provoked something in me, cognitively, intuitively. It seemed, initially, that my fleshy little brain was coming undone in the face of this transfinite blast of information. And I felt violated. An actualized infinite that transfixes through a sensible, gadgetizable, stream of data seemed disconcerting. I wanted a more righteous, distant, non-sensible infinite to finitize the information that was impaling me.

But what if, perhaps, the infinite itself didn’t have another agenda entirely? What if my actual, sensible, embodied feeling of resistance was, in fact, the aftershock of an infinite intuition? What if the infinite had bubbled up through my synapses and then my organs like a kind of indigestion?  What if the infinite, itself, had been on a mission to get to me—into my intuition—to suggest, in a still quiet voice: I’m not just out there, I’m in here, too.

An absurd speculation, perhaps. But in this datamatic planet that’s beginning to seem like our natural environment, I think such speculations matter—infinitely. We may not always have much control over what enchants, charms, seduces, or transfixes our fragile brains and bodies. But maybe it helps to remember that the infinite, or transfinite, forces of wonder aren’t just mediated to us through gadgets and portals. They’re also stirring and circulating through the cavernous portals and connectors of our own messy, human motherboards.

Beatrice Marovich is a writer who studies theories of divinity. She’s currently working on a PhD at Drew University’s Graduate Division of Religion in Madison, NJ.