Ronjaunee Chatterjee, Thinking Singularity
Mary Mullen’s recent piece for V21 ends with the compelling observation that “A form of Victorian Studies grounded in multiple anachronisms interrogates our claims to distance, acknowledges our affective attachments (and their limits), and opens up new political horizons.” Mullen’s mention of “queer temporalities”—thinking of alternative ways to envision linear, normative ideas of about the subject (or object) in time—is a point that is productively echoed by John Bowen’s 2009 essay, “Time for Victorian Studies?” Here Bowen suggests that a more theoretical approach to the act of historicizing itself—one attuned to the fundamental uncanniness of engaging with temporality—would allow for a more wide ranging sense of the nineteenth century and its continuing reverberations.  We might say, then, that a basic disruption of particulars and universals haunts all representation that deals with time in the first place. Yet this disruption serves as an opening to think about a third term, singularity. Singularity—a form of irreducible uniqueness, something that falls out of the universal and resists normalization—characterizes a great deal of contemporary thinking about the fate of the new, and about the fate of particularity itself. Laurent Berlant’s “On the Case” is a good example of this kind of scholarly confrontation, in which she discusses a genre (the case) that “hovers about the singular, the general, and the normative.”  What is interesting about the case, of course, is that as much as it demarcates contemporary problems of legal justice, it is also a strikingly nineteenth-century phenomenon: the photographic case study; the medical (and psychoanalytic one); the detective case. If the case, as Berlant mentions, often arose to “manage singularity,” it is also an acknowledgment of singularity’s unruly presence.  What would it mean, then, to think about singularities for Victorian studies across questions of subjectivity, historicity, and genre, rather than in terms of particularity?
What we have is an invitation to consider a different ontological field, one that begins, rather than ends with the limits of representation. Singularity distinguishes a kind of “otherwise” to normative thought, where we might have a crack in the universal. Some examples from philosophy and science might include Kant’s third critique and the moment of pure aesthetic judgment; Deleuze’s singularities which point to potentiality in a relation of forces; black holes—points of infinity where a given equation breaks down; Lacan’s formulas of sexuation—which, by deuniversalizing femininity, invoke a singularity, a not-all; Badiou’s truth event—a rupture in a system that cannot ever be reproduced; Kierkegaard’s leap of faith in Fear and Trembling, and Derrida’s arguments about the iterability of the “mark” in his essay “Signature, Event, Context,” a mark that has no relationship to a Hegelian negativity, yet always maintains a form of structural possibility.
One of the things I find interesting about the collision between mathematics and philosophy in this set of examples is precisely the way in which singularity asks us to count differently. If the nineteenth century pioneered technologies of measurement and social classification—ways to “manage singularity”—a rather subtle but momentous split nevertheless occurs between enumeration and counting as standardizing tools (ones that, amidst greater census data in England, for example, create a statistically-measurable body), and numbers in service of the collapse of part and whole: notably, in George Cantor’s infinity proofs and the invention of set theory. Cantor’s proofs, it is worth noting, deeply unsettle the grounds of part and whole by demonstrating that multiple infinities can and do exist, nestled within one another (in the set of real numbers versus natural numbers, for example). The nineteenth-century then crucially bears witness to an altogether different construction of part and whole that relies less on particularity and universality, pivoting rather on the axis of singularity and infinity.
Yet present-day culture usually associates singularity with an A.I. phenomenon in which computers will eventually exceed all human intelligence and comprehension, an idea popularized by Raymond Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near (2005). In the most recent issue of New Left Review, Fredric Jameson, in “The Aesthetics of Singularity,” suggests that contemporary finance capital in the form of the derivative is a singularity, a kind of dehistoricized “perpetual present” that, because of the differential nature of global currencies, is unrepeatable, but clearly maintains itself through infinite expansion.  Both these forms of singularity share a strong sense of, in Eve Sedgwick’s words, the “bad surprise,”  ones that rely on a technocratic infinity of endless accumulation. Because singularity in all of these cases demarcates something that, by its very definition, resists the full powers of conceptualization, it hovers on the edge of a risk. Therefore, for Jameson, singularity can slide easily into the perpetual present of the derivative: a form of the numerical gone sour in its non-human machinations.
One of the problems to which a close attention to singularity circles back is precisely a temporal one, involving the contrast between a present that merely repeats or extends and one that opens into a future (and by extension, relies on a notion of the past) that is unruly, discontinuous, and whose possibilities have yet to take form. The very opposite of Jameson’s finance capital singularity might be Walter Benjamin’s jetztzeit, loosely translated as “the time filled by the presence of the now,” from the oft-quoted set of theses “On the Philosophy of History” (composed in 1940).  Benjamin contrasts a kind of vanishing point of the now—merely a subset of “empty, homogenous time,”—with a now that might actually bear the weight of change and decision. For Bowen, this opening of temporality to jetztzeit—to the priority of possibility over actuality—should resonate with Victorian scholars as it characterizes some of our most familiar and canonical material. Bowen discusses Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities,  but the opening lines of Little Dorrit strike similar shivers: “30 years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.”  Connoting not only a loss of stable perspective that radically shifts any universal predicated on the form of the novel, these lines also put forth irreducible rupture as that which characterizes time and history itself. A similar kind of opening to singularity seems to hover above Middlemarch’s “Prelude,” which muses on the figure of Saint Theresa and her constitutive strangeness-in-time.
The question of singularity is thus not merely analogous to thinking the exception, the subversion, or the transgression. Nor do I think it should be yoked firmly to the infinite accumulation of the present of capitalism. We might consider the final lines of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés j’amais n’abolire le hasard as a further extension of how singularity holds open limits between multiple discourses and ways of thinking. Un Coup de dés is a famously impenetrable work of poetry—graphically rendered in a style evoking contemporary poetic experiments—that nevertheless suggests a striking relationship between the numerical and the resolutely singular: “Toute pensée émet un coup de dés,” or all thought puts forward (alternatively produces, emits, or transmits) a roll of the dice. Where the limits of the verb “émettre” end, the possibilities of numbers begin. But perhaps what is shared at their border is an altogether otherwise notion of the surprise, one that requires a certain connectedness between different modes of thinking, at their thresholds.
 John Bowen, “Time for Victorian Studies?” Journal of Victorian Culture 14:2 (2009), 282-293.
 Lauren Berlant, “On the Case.” Critical Inquiry 33 (2007), 663-672.
 Berlant, 664.
 Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity.” New Left Review 92 (March-April 2015), 101-132.
 “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably
Think This Essay is About You,” in Thinking Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity,
edited by Michèle Aina Barale, Jonathan Goldberg, Michael Moon, and Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick (Durham: Duke UP, 2003), 123-151.
 Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Illuminations. Edited by Hannah Arendt and translated by Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1968), 253-264 (261).
 Bowen, 289-290.
 Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857. Reprint, London: Penguin Books, 2003), 15.