Samuel Beckett participates in a cultural anxiety about the limits of representation, an anxiety manifested not only in literature, but also in mathematics, neurology, physics, psychology, and now in the world of educational technology. This anxiety became acute during the first half of the twentieth century as various discourses deployed strategies that exploited this heightened awareness of the intrinsic incompleteness and inconsistency of systematic knowledge. Whatever their disciplinary differences, they nonetheless shared the sense that recognizing these limits was an opportunity to understand discourse both from within narrow disciplinary practices and from without in a larger logical and philosophical framework that made the aspiration toward completeness quaint and naïve. They situated the mind as a sort of boundary phenomenon between the deployment of discourses and an extra-linguistic reality.
At the core of this sensibility was a recognition that language might always fail to re-present its objects, but that those objects were nonetheless real and expressible as a function of the naming process. An important corollary was that these gaps were not only a token for the interplay of word and world, but were also an opportunity to illuminate the gap itself. In short, symbol systems seemed to stand as a different order of phenomena than whatever they proposed to represent, and the result was a burst of innovative work across a variety of disciplines.
Beckett's treatment of mathematics as a sign system reminds us to interrogate the mathematical claims that suffuse contemporary culture and are especially evident in the justifications and rationales for "edtech," "big data," etc. These claims need to be debunked with the critical strategies embedded in Beckett's work: semiotics, phenomenology, and the understanding that they are just as much a text as any novel or play by Samuel Beckett.
Below is the complete text of a paper published in The Journal of Beckett Studies that explores Beckett's work in terms of the cultural crisis surrounding the recogniton that the world is . . . a text. I hope that those interested in digital technologies might use it as a model for understanding their limits and powers.
the crisis of re-presentation