The Sigil of Titivillus 

manuel arturo abreu

0. Sigils

A sigil is a mark made by humans, which is assigned magical power.

1. Titivillus

Language immanently bears within itself something beyond itself, radically negating language’s conditions, even as it affirms grounds for the cogency of words. Nonsense, errors, etc, bear traces of this immanent and impossible condition of possibility: both scars and seeds. These are the sigils of Titivillus.

As the Medieval European demon of errors, Titivillus embodies this mystery—or paradox—at the heart of language. He surveilled chatter, gossip, mumbling and recital mistakes during Mass, and inserted errors into scribes’ manuscripts—a scapegoat for mistakes of exhaustion. He had to collect such errors for Satan, lest he beat him. For the scribes, Titivillus was among the available tools for protecting one’s labor, such as curses against book thieves; abject and horny marginalia; sardonic colophons. It’s how they coped with the brutal work of copying books by hand, which Christian Europe understood not as work, but as worship and duty. Some say Titivillus’ reign declined from the introduction of the printing press, increasing public literacy and the resultant demystification of text. But errors proliferated more than ever, and continue to do so into the digital age.

2. Mediation

Media has inherent value, since it is how we organize our societies. Reducing sense data to a medium—such as a sentence or a picture has an evolutionary advantage but it inherently strips things away of certain aspects of their being. Necessary for communication, such reduction is also where errors and misunderstandings arise. As such, language is powerful, or magical in allowing the articulation of possible worlds and social organization. But it still cannot measure up to the task of adequately describing the world it helps create, since no sentence or picture can ever really stand in for the full sensory—or cognitive—experience to which it refers (nor should it have to). The reduction to language, even at its most basic, has an inherent distorting capacity, but this may be generative.

The massive proliferation of text in the digital era mirrors the rise of the printing press: there are more errors in the world of text and language now than ever before, so we can argue Titivillus is hard at work today. Additionally, digital users mirror scribes and parishioners (targets of Titivillus)— both are commanded to always be attentive, to treat work as spiritual (or the corollary, to treat all non-work activity as transactional), and to constantly produce textual affect in different kinds of networks.

3. Marketizing nonsense

In framing an analogy between digital user and medieval scribe or parishioner, we can ask whether gossip, sloth, error and nonsense have the same subversive value they did in medieval Europe. Is the modern Titivillus as banal as autocorrect, or can we re-enchant him?

Titivillus did not disappear with the printing press but he diffused into the technological network that produced textuality. Thus, in the context of a surveilled digital network, the production of nonsense might act as a way to successfully communicate with each other, without being subsumed into said network. Much like church gossip, the only witness is Titivillus, and he doesn’t punish, only notate. Moreover, language ‘under the sigil of Titivillus’ may even be reconceived as a means of sabotage and resistance, analogous to those parishioners who fomented dissent in whisper networks and gendered gossip, or simply gleefully distracted themselves and others during a boring Mass.

Driven by quantification, algorithms can’t really capture qualia—subjective experience—nearly as well as language can. The ‘detritus’ of language, which bears traces of the paradox at language’s heart, may constitute a sabotage of network logic—shitposting, asemic writing, nonsense, poetry, typos, nonreferential language. But is this really radical, or simply another symptom of the logic we are trying to escape, a Titivillean coping?

4. Berardi’s dérèglement

For theorist Franco Berardi, the “magic of postreferential language anticipated the general process of dereferentialization that occurred when the economy became a semio-economy”. He links nineteenth century dérèglement—an emancipation of signifier from signified and an abject mystic struggle for meaning in the Rimbaudian sense—with twentieth century market deregulation, to emphasize the power of language freed from the shackles of reference. Symbolism expanded poetics, “starting from the emancipation of the word from its referential task”, and analogously, “the emancipation of money—the financial sign—from the industrial production of things follows the same semiotic procedure as poetry, from referential to nonreferential signification”.

Thus, it’s precisely the ‘emancipation’ from reference—the ways language and money act similarly—that allows language to ‘muscle up’ and creatively resist value, assuming that being closer to nonsense makes it less alienating than ordinary language. As such, poetry is a kind of deregulation of the soul that closely resembles the deregulation of the market, but whose destinies do not coincide, as its languages exceed economic exchange. For Berardi, it’s a radical resource for a paradigm shift. By emphasizing hope in the radical potential of poetry’s ‘infinite hermeneutics’, Berardi misses the abjection in dérèglement, which is not simply the unshackling of sense from reference, or the poetic seer’s burning pain, but also the ensuing disorder that this might cause for the individual or society.

5. Durkheim’s dérèglement—anomie

While Berardi’s deregulated soul suffers in its burning poetic search, its infinite desire is not a sickness or sin. In stark contrast, Durkheim’s work folds an ethical, etiological aspect into his consideration of the market’s role. He deploys the synonyms dérèglement and anomie to describe social malaise caused by economic shifts, where a given society lacks any kind of necessary “limit on the state of derangement [dérèglement]”. For Durkheim, our capacity for feeling is itself abyssal, always producing more and disordered feelings; we require a ‘regulative force’ against this morass of infinitude. He says: “Ce mal de l’infini, que l’anomie apporte partout avec elle.”

Society is precisely what plays this role, commensurate to its economic situation. However, industrialization decimated the organic, adaptable, complex divisions of labor in regulative social structures like guilds, instead rendering a mechanic, undifferentiated mass of alienated relations. A lack of limitations on the ‘deregulation of the soul’, so to speak, causes a mismatch between individual goals and perceptions, and societal norms. As such, when society is disturbed by some painful crisis—or by beneficent but abrupt transitions— it is momentarily incapable of exercising this influence of “regulation on desire”.

Antithetical to Berardi’s infinity hype (and with a theological flair) Durkheim writes almost as if across the centuries to Berardi: “The passion for infinity is commonly presented as a mark of moral distinction, even though it cannot so appear except in deranged consciences which establish as a rule the derangement from which they suffer.” Presumably, any poetic—such as Berardi’s ‘infinite hermeneutics’—which has this ‘passion’, would also exhibit this ‘disorder’ of insatiable will, that is to say, would be an expression of dérèglement as anomie. We can deduce that either the negative impact of Durkheim’s dérèglement is not enough to mitigate the radical potential of poetry as described by Berardi, or Berardi’s own belief in poetry is in fact a symptom of Durkheim’s social diagnosis.

Following Mestrović, we can further reject a clean dichotomy in Durkheim’s thinking between secular anomie and theological acedia (sloth), and instead argue the two are linked: anomie is “the secular version of sin”, conceived by Durkheim “as an inversion of the sacred and profane”.

6. The sigil of Titivillus

If a lack of external restriction on the ‘passion for infinity’ causes social malaise and personal disorder, then, as discussed, Titivillus can be understood as simultaneously a disciplinarian or an accountant of sloth, but also as an embodiment of the paradox at the heart of language—as both regulator and catalyst of the mal de l’infini [evil of infinity]. And as the generative power of nonreferential language, its ‘infinite hermeneutics’, may not be a strong enough bulwark against the ‘evil of infinity’ in human desire and the rigidity or ordinary language from which it emerges.

Even as a ‘deregulation of the soul’ can generate a rigorous poetics, it still remains a symptom of social ill: language itself is simultaneously the external social limitation on mal de l’infini, but is also its engine. As such, if—as Berardi argues—we are to believe in language as a radical resource for paradigm change then we cannot succumb to marketized subsumptions of this language of radicality. The thin line here is exactly where the ‘sigil of Titivillus’—the use of magical thinking to produce nonreferential language—comes into play. Its magical power is that it can make sense: it’s how we can talk to each other while avoiding detection, how we can say what we can’t say, how we can plan for the day it all goes down. As Chomsky states: “colorless green dreams sleep furiously”.