Comment on Richard Shiff’s argument on chance and reality
Richard Shiff takes up Roland Barthes’s argument that within the fictions of representation, chance elements such as “alluding to an object of no apparent narratological function” connote reality because—in Peirce’s words—“reality is chance and has no meaning.” It may be added that such a conviction depends on one’s understanding of the way in which the universe is run, and that for upholders of Providence (of one kind or another), elements of design rather than chance can produce an “effect of reality” of a higher order, an “effect of surreality.” The surrealists come logically to mind and one thinks of their notion of “objective chance”: what escapes human agency and contingency connotes another agency, unconscious or transcendent. It is also possible to reverse (and maybe confirm) Barthes’s argument by observing that within the contingencies of reality, design elements such as the apparition of representations where none are expected and intended connote surreality. A case in point is the so-called “chance images,” which have been and are frequently experienced and interpreted as uncanny or miraculous. August Strindberg’s autobiographical novel Inferno, published in French in 1897, describes how the narrator’s life is disrupted and ultimately transformed by the apparition of such accidental images, which he first regards as meaningless and eventually considers as messages. As a novel, it is again within the fictions of representation, which can thematize this symmetrical connotation. In his (very) short story “Theme of the Traitor and the Hero” (1944), Jorge Luis Borges sketched a historical inquiry into facts that appeared to reenact antiquity and Shakespeare’s dramas, leading the narrator to wonder whether history was cyclical or the facts had been staged by a hidden director, possibly in such a way that this would be later discovered.