Spiraling into control

The military postcard from World War I is completely covered with preprinted words. In nine of the languages of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – German, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Ukrainian, Italian, Slovenian, Croatian and Romanian – the words warn a sender not to blemish the mosaic of themselves by adding even one word more.

The mosaic’s surface is perfect in the grammatical sense of the perfect tenses, which get their name from the Latin word perfectus, meaning “completed.” If we could see through the surface into a space not yet perfected, we might be tempted to top it up with words expressing completion in a future – for instance, “By the time you read these words, I may still be alive.” But a sentence like that would be nonsense. In the aftermath of the card’s preprinted now-and-forever Ich bin gesund, it would be like Chomsky’s “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously”: grammatical but meaningless. It would depend for its significance on the logically incoherent idea of a history with a future.

Therefore a military censor put a stop to the nonsense. In advance of whatever future is rationally conceivable, he ordered the postcard’s printer to fill in every unfilled space more than one character wide. His chosen blackout medium, too, was not mere amorphous ink, the raw material of writing, but a pair of already finished dingbats. The dingbats are spirals: one turning to the left in its line of text, the other to the right. They belong to all of the card’s nine alphabets but to none of its nine languages. All they do is execute self-canceling semicircles, clockwise and then counterclockwise. Pure wordless form, they communicate their one-letter Archimedean meaning only to themselves. But as they execute their pivot left and right, tessera by tessera, they assemble themselves into a sequence, deploy across the card’s surface, and join into a mosaic entanglement. To write past or around or through that, a soldier would have to cut through as if it were barbed wire and his only cutting tool were a scraper for clearing space on a palimpsest.

Mobilized line by line and made into a text which says nothing and enforces the saying of nothing, the meaningless little letters have spiraled into control of the card.

Source: http://historicaltimes.tumblr.com/post/140789125122/slovenska-zgodovina-during-the-first-world-war. Translation of the central and peripheral blocks: “I am in good health and doing fine” and “No other communication may be made on this card.”