01 December 2011

The Gigantic

We now live in a world where the very size of the real-time stream begins to exceed capacities to understand or make any sense of the sheer flow of data, and Twitter which currently handles 250 million tweets per day, or 1.25 billion per week, is a great example of this (Totsis 2011). Ways of thinking about the real-time stream as a totality are needed to help think through the implications of this data rich world and provide a contribution towards a cognitive map. For this reason I think that Heidegger's notion of the concept of the 'gigantic' that he introduces in Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) might prove to be useful. For Heidegger, the gigantic represents a new moment whereby the very impossibility of understanding the extremeness of small and large sizes as calculability becomes itself a change in quality. As he argues in 'The Age of the World Picture':
A sign of this event is that everywhere and in the most varied forms and disguises the gigantic is making its appearance. In so doing, it evidences itself simultaneously in the tendency toward the increasingly small. We have only to think of numbers in atomic physics. The gigantic presses forward in a form that actually seems to make it disappear – in the annihilation of great distances by the airplane, in the setting before us of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness, which is produced at random through radio by a flick of the hand. Yet we think too superficially if we suppose that the gigantic is only the endlessly extended emptiness of the purely quantitative. We think too little if we find that the gigantic, in the form of continual not-ever-having-been-here-yet, originates only in a blind mania for exaggerating and excelling (Appendix 12) (Heidegger 1977: 135).
And as Livingston (2003) further explains:
At first, the ‘gigantic’ simply means the unlimited processes of quantification and assumptions of quantifiability that make possible modern technological means of expression and control. But when understood in a broader historical perspective, the ground of the ‘gigantic’ is not just the absence of limits on the process of quantification, but a fundamental aspect or feature of quantity itself (Livingston 2003: 332-333).
Here the gigantic is understood as the very possibility of quality being derivational from quantity itself. Thus the kinds of quantitative possibilities for human existence are measured, calculated, listed, captured, pure data itself as being:
But as soon as machination is in turn grasped being-historically, the gigantic reveals itself as ‘something’ else. It is no longer the re-presentable objectness of an unlimited quantification but rather quantity as quality. Quality is meant here as the basic character of the quale, of the what, of the ownmost, of be-ing itself (Heidegger 1999: 94).
The gigantic then becomes the mark of the age of the real-time stream inasmuch as the gigantic becomes the 'greatness' of this moment. We therefore increasingly use this notion of gigantism as a means of assessing the very importance of things within our everyday experience, not, that is, that the specific value itself has any particular or important meaning, but rather that the sheer impossibility of conceiving of the number (whether large or small) becomes a kind of sublime of unrepresentability. A mere mood or feeling that is associated with the gigantic then becomes something that we routinely consider to be a way to understand meaningful difference.
The gigantic is rather that through which the quantitative becomes a special quality and thus a remarkable kind of greatness. Each historical age is not only great in a distinctive way in contrast to others; it also has, in each instance, its own concept of greatness. But as soon as the gigantic in planning and calculating and adjusting and making secure shifts over out of the quantitative and becomes a special quality, then what is gigantic, and what can seemingly always be calculated completely, becomes, precisely through this, incalculable. This becoming incalculable remains the invisible shadow that is cast around all things everywhere when man has been transformed into subiectum and the world into picture (Appendix 13) (Heidegger 1977: 135).
Heidegger helpfully lists the forms of the gigantic:
1. The gigantism of the slowing down of history (from the staying away of essential decisions all the way to lack of history) in the semblance of speed and steer ability of "historical" [historisch] development and its anticipation.
2. The gigantism of the publicness as summation of everything homogeneous in favour of concealing the destruction and undermining of any passion for essential gathering.
3. The gigantism of the claim to naturalness in the semblance of what is self-evident and "logical"; the question-worthiness of being is placed totally outside questioning.
4. The gigantism of the diminution of beings in the whole in favour of the semblance of boundless extending of the same by virtue of unconditioned controllability. The single thing that is impossible is the word and representation of "impossible" (Heidegger 1999: 311).
Thus that we live in a flow of real-time information that exceeds our capacities to understand or follow it – for example when we have followed enough people such that our stream in Twitter is too fast to parse – is the kind of affect that I think the notion of the gigantic points towards. This is not a feeling of being overwhelmed or being in a situation of losing control, rather it is a feeling of pure will-to-power, as it were, experiencing the gigantic as a manifestation of yourself. Equally, the flows of data both into and out of your life then become a marker of your gigantism, the subjectivity of the stream is constituted by the flow of data through which a moment of curation take place, but a curation of gigantism, not a reduction as such, but a wholeness or comprehensiveness of coverage. Each of us then becomes our own gigantic in as much as we increasingly generate data flows into and out of the networks of social life mediated through software and code.
In the culture of the modern subject who would master the world according to the logic of representation and through the technologies grounded in such a logic, which seem to overcome the very limits of space and time, the mystery of transcendence can indeed seem to "appear" only through its sheer absence.  Such a culture, then, would appear to be a culture of absolute immanence or even "total presence," a culture de-mystified by a subject who, most notably in the technologies of all-consuming light and image, seems to comprehend all (Carlson 2003).
This is a total presence in the real-time stream, presented through such real-time streaming technologies as Twitter, Facebook (especially through their Ticker), the Jawbone Up, and the concept of frictionless sharing that Facebook has advocated (MacMannus 2011). This is a world in which the sheer gigantic incalculability of the calculable becomes an experience beyond the mere technical process or possibility of data collection, transmission, and transformation. Indeed, it becomes the very moment when one is caught within the mystery of the sheer unrepresentability, or perhaps better, comprehensibility of our own streams of data generated and flowing through these new forms of social network. Made manifest, perhaps though digital technology, but also pointing towards the other unencoded that remains outside of these networks, as plasma or the region, and from which this data is drawn.

But Heidegger offers the suggestion that within the gigantic there is opened a shadow in the form of a moment of possible transcendentalism, perhaps even a new form of sacred, that points to the possible reconfiguration of previous marginal practices or a reconfiguration of things. This, I want to suggest, opens up new possibilities for a human subjectivity that can undertake the practices of listening and harkening to that which lies behind the rushing sound of the real-time streams and their shadows.
By means of this shadow the modern world extends itself out into a space withdrawn from representation, and so lends to the incalculable the determinateness peculiar to it, as well as a historical uniqueness. This shadow, however, points to something else, which it is denied to us of today to know. But man will never be able to experience and ponder this that is denied so long as he dawdles about in the mere negating of the age. The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment... Man will know, i.e., carefully safeguard into its truth, that which is incalculable, only in creative questioning and shaping out of the power of genuine reflection. Reflection transports the man of the future into that "between" in which he belongs to Being but remains a stranger amid that which is (Heidegger 1977: 136).


Carlson, T. (2003) Locating the Mystical Subject, in Kessler, M. and Sheppard, C. (eds.) Mystics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, accessed 02/12/2011, http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/projects/ct3/docs/LocatingtheMysticalSubject.doc.

Heidegger, M. (1977 [1938]) The Age of the World Picture, in The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, New York: Harper Perennial, pp115-154.

Heidegger, M. (1999) Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Livingston, P. (2003) Thinking and Being: Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Machination and Lived-Experience, Inquiry, 46, 324–345.

MacManus, R. (2011) The Pros & Cons of Frictionless Sharing, ReadWriteWeb, accessed 02/12/2011, http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/frictionless_sharing_pros_cons.php

Totsis, A. (2011) Twitter Is At 250 Million Tweets Per Day, iOS 5 Integration Made Signups Increase 3x, TechCrunch, accessed 02/12/2011, http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/17/twitter-is-at-250-million-tweets-per-day/

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