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Infinity Essays - Andrea Vetter and Matthias Fersterer

Andrea Vetter and Matthias Fersterer
7 min read
15 Mar 2022

For a series Infinity Essays, STRP invited artists from her network to reflect on this year's theme (The end of infinity) and explore other perspectives, raise new questions, give personal interpretations or share ideas. Read the next essay by researchers Andrea Vetter and Matthias Fersterer below!

Infinity Lost

There are at least two ways of grasping infinity: firstly, as a line with no endpoint – an arrow or an exponential curve promising, for instance, the chimera of infinite economic growth; and, secondly, as a circle, like the wheel of the year, with the seasons coming and going and with them the tasks that need to be done in societies in which nutrition is based on growing, gathering, and harvesting. Both can be depicted graphically:
Naamloos 1
Fig. 1. Linear notion of infinity & Fig. 2. Cyclical notion of infinity
The problem with graphics is that they are abstractions. Abstractions are never up to describing the breathing reality of aliveness. The Anthropocene – or, more fittingly, the “Capitalocene” – could aptly be framed as the age where humans got trapped in their own abstractions. All modern societies are based on abstractions carved in juridical forms such as laws, treaties, or contracts.

Juridical forms are abstractions within linear temporality. Games played in linear time are finite games. As James P. Carse reminds us, a “finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”Winning a game means ending it. Contracts are finite games, and finite games rely on contracts. (Till death do part us.)The desires for salvation and apocalypse are two sides of the same coin. Both salvation und apocalypse are contractual agreements: tit for tat. (And forgive us our trespasses, / as we forgive them that trespass against us.) Contracts are drawn up to make sure that the relationships they stipulate will end in specific ways. Ultimately, contracts desire to be nullified: they are means to ends, and they mean to end. In this sense, contracts are apocalyptic.

We are wary of universalist abstractions such as “the history of humanity”. If history is the quest of man attaining importance, meaning, and, ultimately, infinity – than, ironically, this quest went utterly astray: history, too, is a finite apocalyptic game, and infinity cannot be reached within the realms of linearity. And whose story is it anyway? “His story” cannot tell us their stories, our stories – the endlessly diverse life-sustaining tales handed down by generations of people, be they human or more-than-human, marginalised or suppressed, queer or straight or in-between. These are not hero’s journeys, but “carrier-bag stories”. “Finally”, as Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out, “it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag … You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.”

A century ago, the theory of general relativity explained the curvature of time. Fair enough. But time, as experienced by our mammalian bodies, has never been linear at all. It never resembled anything like an x-axis, darting with its arrowhead right into the bull’s eye of salvation/apocalypse: Thok! – Win! – Game over. No. Time has been cyclical all along: Lived mammalian time resembles a string of beads, a meandering brook, a spiralling snail shell, a curled up snake, the Ouroboros biting its own tail. We like that ancient image for revealing the fallacy of linear infinity by having a serpent – something that could, in the abstract, take the shape of a straight line but in reality never does – come full circle, making it clear that aiming at infinity means transcending linearity.
Naamloos 2
Fig. 3. Ouroboros
We are wary of alarmism: Time is not running out for humankind, but it is colonialist, capitalist, patriarchal imperialism that has steered right out of (cyclical) time. There is no use in speeding up, if this kind of “civilization” is on the wrong track. We pay heed to Báyò Akómoláfés credo “When times are urgent, let us slow down.” When you find yourself racing in the wrong direction, slowing down makes a lot of sense. But mind you, slowing down does not mean a mere reduction of speed. Slowing down means exiting the motorway of patriarchal civilization and directing your attention towards the winding sideways, towards the meandering river banks, towards the compost heaps, towards the wreckage of civilization, towards the “cracks”. (Enter Leonard Cohen: “There is a crack, a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”)

Off the motorway, you might find rhythms that seem strangely familiar to your mammalian mind. You might wonder how it could have ever happened that seasonal rhythms – from resting to sprouting to growing to ripening to withering to resting to sprouting … – have been turned into linear temporality. You might realise that the “500-year war on subsistence” (Ivan Illich) has given the very basis of life a bad name. What would it feel like to dig your hands into the soil, marvelling at the magic of growing things, and finding ways of feeling embedded in the cyclical rhythms of the place where you live? You may hear from afar the earthy wisdom of the subsistence perspective as formulated by Maria Mies and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen: “Subsistence not only means hard labour and living at the margins of existence but also joy in life, happiness and abundance.”

Well, but: circles are abstractions, too. Each recurring season is distinctly unique, no two springs are alike. The abstract circle metaphor fits even less to what is happening out there right now, with the Capitalocene having fucked up the earth’s climate by its endless obsession with linearity, progress, and infinite economic growth. No more going round and round and round, in the circle game … There is no way of knowing for sure what to expect from any given season at any given place on this planet. Stubbornly pursuing infinity along the lines of linearity, human people have destroyed infinity in its only attainable form: the circle of life.

At this signal moment, that human ape species sadly misnamed “Homo sapiens” is propelling itself out of cyclical time and out of the Holocene’s climate, which had enabled it in the first place to conquer the earth. Earth is on the verge of an era in which the circle will be broken, the predictability of seasons will be broken, hope will be broken. With much of human empirical knowledge vanishing into thin air, we are like newborns finding ourselves in an unknown world, having only the faintest ideas of how to get through. We are at the end of infinity as we have known it. And yet, this very void might spur our discernment. This state of not-knowing might strike sparks of right livelihood in the here and now, enabling us to embrace all our many differences, cracks, wounds, and dysfunctional aspects. Who could tell whether the end of infinity might not be a beginning, too?

Akómoláfé, Báyò: »A Slower Urgency«, www.bayoakomolafe.net/post/a-slower-urgency, (accessed 15 February 2022).
Carse, James P.: Finite and Infinite Games. A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility, New York: Free Press, 1986.
Cohen, Leonard: »Anthem«. In: The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen, London: Omnibus Press, 2009.
Illich, Ivan: Shadow Work. Salem, New Hampshire, and London: Marion Boyars, 1981.
Le Guin, Ursula K.: »The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction«. In: Dancing at the Edge of the World. Thoughts on Words, Women, Places, New York: Grove Press, 1989.
Mies, Maria and Bennholdt-Thomsen, Veronika: The Subsistence Perspective. Beyond the Globalised Economy, London: ZED Books, 2000.
Andrea Vetter is a transition researcher teaching Transformation Design at Braunschweig University of Art. She is co-creator and founder of the post-local art and transformation hub “Haus des Wandels” in Brandenburg (Germany). Matthias Fersterer co-founded the transformational magazine “Oya – enkeltauglich leben” and runs the independent publishing press “Drachen Verlag”. He lives in Klein Jasedow in North-East Germany in one of the country’s longest standing intentional communities.