Flat Life

Flat Life

Steven Connor

My soul, what’s lighter than a feather? Wind?
Than wind? The fire. And what than fire? The mind.
What is lighter than the mind? A thought. Than thought?
This bubble world. What than this bubble? Nought. (Francis Quarles, Emblems, 1718)


The Shape of Thought

This paper concerns skin and its participation in the subtle, secret life of substance. It is about paper, cards, gambling and masturbation.

And about the shape of thought. What shape is thought? A bubble? A breast-like container, as Wilfred Bion (1967) thought? An immaterial Cartesian point? Or perhaps, as Didier Anzieu suspects (1979), some kind of tegument? A tangled lattice of synapses? Why think about thinking in terms of shape? Perhaps because we find it almost impossible to think, and more especially to think of thinking, without thinking of shape. My interest is in the relationship between the thought of shape and the shape of thought. In thinking of shape, any shape, one assimilates that shape, assimilates one’s thinking to it. Which contains which? Does the thinking enfold the shape, or the shape mould and cradle the thought of the shape? In what space might this mutual embrace of the shape of thinking and the thought of shape occur, or, what shape could the mutual shaping of thought and shape have? How is the concept of shape grasped, how does the hand think?

What if there were two worlds, divided not along the line of the extended and the unextended, that which has dimension and that which does not, but the flat and the full? The flat world is the world of surfaces, the full world is the world of shapes in space. The full world would have interiority as well as volume: it would be full of latency, of hidden, implicit, reserved things. The flat world would have no interiority, no depth, no secret, nothing hidden from view. Whatever was not seen in it would simply be not to be seen, rather than something withdrawn from sight. The full world, by contrast, would allow communication, action at a distance, and the resonance of hidden things one with another. It would be a world of sounds and radiations, as imaged in Marcel Duchamp’s Bruit caché, a sealed box with an unidentifiable noise in it. The flat world would be characterised not by communication but by contact. Where a world of volumes enjoins attention to the relations between inside and outside, the flat imaginary is drawn to inversion and mirroring, the alternations of recto and verso, front and back. Lewis Carroll’s eminently flat imagination is perfectly imaged as a mirror-writing: in which passing through the mirror into the Looking-Glass world is equivalent simply to writing backwards, or right to left. Looking-Glass land is therefore much more than a reversed image of our world. For in it, things move backwards and forwards with equal facility: ‘Do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats? … ‘Important … Unimportant … Important … Unimportant’ (Carroll 1976: 28, 155). It is not so much an upside down, as a palindromic world, a world in which direction is indifferent.

Edwin A. Abbot’s Flatland (1991) offered us the idea of a world restricted to two dimensions as a fable. This flat world is no mere phantasm. It lives and spreads, more and more emphatically, in our world. The iMac, the Pompidou Centre of computer design, with its counterfeit transparency opening on to that faux-anatomy, is a response to the radical flattening and thinning of computer screens, which display the fact that there are no workings going on behind or underneath them. In a network, there is only the lateral slide or knight’s move sideways to another site, another page, another screen, which is the same screen.

In what we call modernity, such flatness has always, so to speak, bulked large. The flat world is all-apparent. It is that world which ‘clung together by its edges’ of which William James speaks (1996: 86). It is the world of the map and the grid and the network; but, above all, it is the paper world that has been for so long our own and that now dreams of its passing away. Modernity is sometimes dated by the advent of perspective, the arrival of depth. dimension, and with them historicity, into a world of mere surfaces. We think of the modern world as coming into being with the scooping out of the subject in its absent fullness, with the intuition that there is more to things, and to ourselves, than meets the eye. But the modern world is a world that depends upon a flat apprehension; and perspective itself is a technique, not exactly for rendering flat things deep, but for reducing volumes and depths and distances to flat schemata. Flatness makes possible that dream of universal tabulation on a single plane which is evidenced in the introduction to the Encyclopédie.



The scroll is the ideal form of the book. A scroll is not divided into pages of a certain fixed length, but simply continues until it comes to an end. The form of the scroll has reappeared in the serial composition allowed by the word-processor, but the idea of the scroll has lived on in the book through seven hundred years. The turning of the pages of a book, the regular alternation of recto and verso, the steady skimming of the pages on the right, and their drifting together on the left, seem to offer to reading a certain kind of body-image, in a building, or the concretion of a structure through time. As the plot thickens, so does this body-image. We deprecate the skim-reader, and admire the one who devours books, who takes books into their substance. The inward digestion of books, and the alimentary passage of books through an imaginary body is to be seen in Leopold Bloom gently and wisely assisting the passage of his stool with a bit of light reading. The merging of horizons through which Georges Poulet imagines the act of reading (not the body of the reader, but the body of the reading) is an elaborated version of this three-dimensional reading body.

But there is another body image for the experience of reading, which is the experience of the reading as a continuous surface, a firmament which slides beneath us, and across which we are moved, unbroken as long as the reading continues. This reading-body comes about through the taking in to oneself as an image of the process of reading of the actual or imaginary surface on which the words are inscribed. ‘Taking in to oneself’: can this be quite right? No, for what one takes in remains a surface, an exterior support, something on which reading, thinking the thoughts of others, thinking with the thoughts of others, may rest. Reading is a skin or scroll of thought. Contemporary critics from Barthes to Deleuze have emphasised this sense of sliding or movement across a surface involved in reading. Other, more traditional and intuitive ways of thinking about reading have emphasised instead the alternative world, or space opened up by reading, conceived as a depth or volume to which one gets access by penetrating or filling out what is presented on the page. My effort at this point is to emphasise the literality of the reading process or the ‘scene of reading’, the way in which reading not only takes off from the page, but also takes in to itself, as its own body-image, the flatness of the page or the reading surface. The phrase ‘body-image’ is often taken in the sense of an image for the body, a way of imagining the body. It can also be taken, and often is here taken, to mean an imaging of things in terms of the body or its sensations (thus the word image is not restricted to the visual, but is more generally figurative): here, the skin, in its flatness, as an image for the workings of mind.

Seen in this way, the page of the scroll is not so much superseded by the screen as consummated by it. Rather than the three-dimensional space which might easily have been devised for computer operating systems, nearly all such operating systems centre on a screen display having the form of a flat surface, or desk-top. The experience of lateral movement, or surfing, reduplicates or extends this body-image of thought spread across, and itself taking form in a flat skin or screen.

Depictions of the act of reading tend to locate it in elaborately scooped out spaces of enclosure, as in the marvellously cosy quarterdeck study devised for St. Jerome in Messina’s picture of him. But all this perspective, this rich and absorbing tilting and intersection of planes, seems to be interpreted by the book open right at the middle of the painting, as a kind of pleating or crumpling up of some more ideal plane of reading in conditions of unvarying illumination. The picture shows its concealment from us of the higher, less variegated illumination offered by the book. Similarly, other fifteenth and sixteenth century representations of the act of reading and writing emphasise the brokenness or dispersal of the text across the spaces of the picture, but in order to hint at some higher uniformity, in which all the books on the bookwheel, or arrayed around the scholar at the desk, would have been brought into conformity with each other, brought into a single plane. The ideal is not books inside other books, books folded together into a concentrated mass, but books joined to each other in and endless unrolling scroll. The belt process of newspaper printing ushers in the return of the scroll of the internet page.

Of course, the surface of a page, or a playing card, or a screen, is not a skin, which, as Anzieu has shown, is so brimming and rich with meaning and affect. There is nothing, as Valéry said, that is deeper than the skin. The dream of flatness is always asymptotic, always a sign of some flatter, more perfect flatness. Such flatness is an abstracted form of one dimension of the skin: it is the skin anatomised, the skin imagined along the lines, in the plane of, a mere skin, with no depth, only spread.

Here, then, is one part of my proposition. Reading, as one form of thinking, can take from and give to the page, the primal form of a flatness, a continuous contact.



Flatness appears to be lifeless, because it makes us think of the breathless body, desiccated by death. Gregor Samsa becomes, first an insect, who experiences the world only in two dimensions, as surfaces to be crawled over, and then, after his death, an emptied-out skin: ‘Gregor’s body was completely flat and dry’ (Kafka 1971: 60). But there are lively, tensed forms of flatness that have much life in them. Flatness can be stretched, into receptive, longing, poignant surface; the canvas, the blank page, the streaming pennant. Clement Greenberg argued influentially that flatness was the distinguishing condition of pictorial representation and that, as such, it should be the ideal form with which painting ought to strive to coincide. But flatness is not itself merely an abstract condition, not merely the absence of depth, volume, dimension. Flatness bulges with meaning and value; it is, as we so bizarrely say, full of itself.

Flatness is affectless: flatness belongs with depression and the dissociation of autism and schizophrenia. But the flatness of the autistic or schizophrenic world may also be hotly impassioned, however that passion may hide itself, and hide from itself. Its flatness must be built and maintained, like the spider’s web or Persephone’s business. Flatness is implicated in certain kinds of representation the purpose of which is to heighten or sustain feeling: the flatness of certain kinds of religious representation – icons, for conspicuous example – helps to give them intensity or power; and the flatness of pornographic writing, its obsessiveness and circularity, and especially its transformation of feeling into number, or quality into quantity, intensity into repetition, seems to account for its simultaneous qualities of pattern and intensity.

Both Alice in Wonderland and the flat world of cartoons reveal that the flat world is not just associated with stillness and cleanness and delicacy, but also with violence. In cartoons, the flatness of the screen, and the weightlessness of the world it displays, is agitated by an intense violence, a violence that alternates between rupture of bodily forms, and flattening of them: Tom the cat is run through a mangle or rolled out like pastry by a road-roller. Though opposites in one sense, the dismemberings and flattenings, the splinterings and spreadings, the contractions and explosions, of bodies in the cartoon world are in fact continuous with each other – they are both held together on the taut, unrupturable hypostasis of the cartoon world, the flat laterality against which all is displayed. Ordinary bodies, living vulnerably and decayingly in time, are poised unstably between these two conditions: the atomised and the flattened.

Flatness is one of the most powerful of the forms of idealised life attaching to the dissociated skin. The skin which is peeled off a fruit or a body retains that body in a facsimile of air, the cored phantom to which it continues to hold in its sagging, emptied-out condition. It is only when the skin has been rolled or beaten out that it attains the transcendent thinness that pertains to the flat. The thinner a surface is, the more vulnerable it is in the real world to tearing and injury; but in imagination, the thinnest substances are possessed of a power that augments in proportion to their thinness and flatness: the most exquisite papers, gold beaten into leaf, the finest, sheerest silks. The power of flatness in our life and imagination derives from the fact that it is this kind of impossible, abstracted skin; the lifeless, merely flat skin given an accessory life and value through being made perfectly flat. Flatness is not exactly of the skin. Rather it is the skin skinned, emptied of the substance of skin, leaving only idea; flatness behind.

Flatness, like straightness, is impossibility, unnatural absoluteness. This is why crop circles may seem so full of mystery, for, like absolutely straight lines incised in the landscape, they seem to invoke the hovering perspective from which alone they are visible. Fineness is finish, that process which reduces the gross massiness of things to perfect thinness. The long and complex history of the idea of subtlety – in the hermetic and alchemical doctrine of the subtle body, for example – runs closely parallel with the history of flatness. Flatness and finish have in them the possibility of some even greater fineness, in the subtlety of objects that have evaporated, become too thin even for gross sensory apprehension, and are held together only by the thought of them. But held together; the idea of the perfect, self-sustaining skin is always retained in ideas of the subtlety or ideal tenuity. For tenuity, tendency, tenderness and tension all derive from a Greek root teino, meaning stretched or drawn out, with a paradoxical relation to words radiating out from tenire, which signify transformations of touching or holding: content, intention, attention. The word subtle is from Latin sub-telis, signifying either an underweb, or that which lies beneath a web, and so perhaps signifies something woven with extreme fineness. The subtle is on the boundary between materiality and thought: the subtle is the thought of a substance too tenuous and rarefied for the actual senses, that requires a subtle, or virtual body to apprehend it. Subtlety of action, or strategy, or thought, involves the capacity to discriminate between layers, to thin one’s thinking to the point where it can be insinuated into a reality that is already finer than fine. In parodying this, Flann O’Brien memorialises it, in the explanations offered by Policeman MacCrusikeen in The Third Policeman. of the process of creating ever more rarified substances, so small, that they can hardly even be thought about (O’Brien 1974: 62-5).

Subtlety and flatness are therefore related closely to miniaturisation and reduction in scale. The development and application of the microscope for purposes of scientific investigation during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries opened up a vast and unsuspectedly various world of swarming, invisible life, but also demanded that such a world be flat and thin and translucent – which could be made visible on a glass microscope slide. At such a scale, thickness and dimension scarcely seem to matter any more.

Topology is a kind of abstract caress of the world, even of the cosmos. Topology has gone far beyond the possibilities of touch, into a world of ten dimensions and more, but it has done so in a mode of reaching which preserves the thought of touch, the tactility of thought. Topology is a model for a new form of thought that thinks, or thinks about its thought (and it cannot help but do so, since topological thinking is always thinking about its own thought, and thinking about its own thought is the form its thinking must take), not as a transpiercing, or unveiling or penetration or an attempt to get to the bottom of things, but as a spreading out or unfolding extrapolation. It extrapolates the thinking of things into new forms, and thus makes possible new forms, new topologies of thought. Cosmologists and mathematicians have been giving great thought to the question of the shape of the universe ever since Einstein’s special theory of relativity seemed to require some kind of curvature of space. Since Alan Guth’s great Eureka moment on the night of December 6, 1979, the moment at which he grasped that the early universe must have been hugely inflationary, doubling its size 100 times in the space of 10-30 of a second, the statistically almost inconceivable possibility that the universe might in fact be flat, which is to say, might extend outwards uniformly, without any inwards or outwards curvature, has seemed more and more likely. The relative uniformity of the cosmic microwave background, the record, at the limit of our observations, or ‘cosmic event horizon’, around 14 billion light years away, of the state of the universe at about 300,000 years old, seems to have been confirmed by observations conducted only in the last couple of years.

Thinking about the cosmos is only the most recent form of the exchange of skins in which thinking about space takes place. Topology, a science that for many years had taken place entirely in the mind, or the self-embodying form which the mind employs to think about such things, has met up with the world through the medium of mathematics. Topology delights in enactive analogies between the skin of thought and the skin of things. Here the old cliché about theoretical physics either being done with a pencil on the back of an envelope or in particle accelerators the size of small countries gains a new salience – or, as we had perhaps better say under these circumstances, spread. Alan Guth remarks on the hermetic mirroring of microcosm and macroscosm imaged in the mathematician’s relationship to the paper on which his thinking is done:

To a theoretical physicist, there is no greater joy than to see that this curious activity we call calculation – the depositing of ink on paper, followed by throwing away the paper and depositing new ink on more paper – can actually tell us something about reality. (Guth 1997)The power of flatness, like the power of any simulacrum of absoluteness, lies in part in its vulnerability. Paper has its life cycle, like everything else. Paper begins in flatness, in the intensity and possibility of that which has been rendered almost immaterially flat. Newspaper is a daily allegory of this process. When it is first bought, or appears miraculously through a letterbox, the newspaper has the qualities of flatness redoubled in the tightest of folds. Newspapers promise the pent newness of the smooth and the flat. The impulse to keep the newspaper smooth for as long as possible, like the impulse to keep things ironed and free from creases, is a projection of this idealised body-image, this bodily image of the body, into the world. But the newspaper cannot survive, and is not made to. It moves from the condition of virgin flatness into the formless, excremental condition of waste paper.



Games are the life of flatness. Nearly all human games require flat surfaces, and take their meaning from them. For the dice-player, or the player of snooker or tennis, none of the life and excitement of the game could exist without this participant background of flatness. Flatness, levelness and smoothness, are required in order that there should be equivalent chances on all sides, and thus that the tiny variations of chance can be more easily disclosed and magnified. Gerolamo Cardano’s specification of the ideal conditions for playing dice in his Liber de Ludo Aleae makes it clear how much must be taken into account to achieve this ideal equilibrium:

Set the round gaming boards in the middle; if they incline toward you opponent, then the dice box will incline in the opposite direction, and this is unfavorable to you. Similarly, if there is a slope toward you, then the box will be out of plumb in your favor; but if the dice box is not moved, then this does not matter. Similarly, if the board catches the light from the side opposite to you, then this is bad, since it disturbs your mind; on the other hand, it is to your advantage to have the board against a dark background. Again, they say it is of benefit to take up your position facing a rapidly rising moon. (Cardano 1953: 191)Flatness approximates the idea of absolute equality, equivalence, chance spread out flat. You spread out chances in a pack of cards by giving spread or flatness to the condensed mass of the pack. Shuffling is like kneading, or sifting. Shuffling the pack turns it into something in three dimensions, creating dynamic shapes in air. But shuffling (from a Germanic root skuf meaning to shove), the movement of cards over each other, is also laminar. One shuffles when one does not lift one’s feet from the floor, not breaking the contact with the plane. This importance of gliding, or maintaining contact means that while the plane is the shape of thought, but also the plane of sleep, which needs uniformity and evenness. Fred Astaire’s roughly percussive tap steps at the beginning of High Society disturb Ginger Rogers sleeping below him, but his sand shuffle spreads out for her the membrane of sleep. I lie on a hard, flat, mattress. On such a surface, my body is able to form from itself a kind of emanation within which it can then nestle. I form from myself, for myself, a pupa-persona, with a folded volume, full of restful intricacy. But I cannot do this standing up, and could not do it suspended in mid-air, despite the attractions of the sailor’s hammock, or even the rope upon which sleepers in Orwell’s spike in Down and Out in Paris and London would rest their weight until the morning when the rope would be cut. No, sleep needs flatness, needs a ground against which to form itself. Writing of his discovery of the ‘dream screen’, Bertram Lewin (1946) identifies sleep as something stretched out, rather than retired or rounded, in Prospero suggests.

A game, like a dream, always begins in ideal indifference, or the assumption of it. It quickly becomes marked with irreversible accidents, markings that can only be erased by further markings, moving further and further away from innocence into webs of contingency, of the complexity that has thickly happened upon emptiness. But many games also strive towards the restoration of equivalence, the emptying of the field, the clearing of the arena of play. Snooker seems to embody this principle. There is little more beautiful and suggestive than the imaginary, multicoloured cosmology disposed in its cardinal points between the balls in their starting configurations. But what is required is that everything except the cue ball should become absent, leaving only the immaculacy of the green baize. You never need to clear away after a game of snooker, because the game consists of the clearing away of the game. Snooker is very largely an auditory spectacle, consisting of the clicks and knocks of the colliding balls, the soft rumbles and judders against the cushioned sides, along with fainter, more fugitive sounds, like the rasping of the chalk on the head of the cue. The aim displayed and urged in snooker is untouchability, with all this decorum and grace, and the white gloves of the referee. The aim is to leave the table looking brand new, gradually disclosing the surface on which it transpires. Snooker enacts the longing to restore smoothness, which Sartre has so convincingly analysed as the sign of a world that can remain inviolate, even after my appropriation of it. Snooker thus resembles the activity of skiing or swimming, as evoked by Sartre, an activity that cleaves through a substance, which then reforms itself in my wake, a passage which removes all trace of itself. In snooker, more than any other game, the body must accommodate itself to this flatness, as the stooping, crouching and stretching postures enact the necessity and desire of assimilation to the flat, the opposite of return to the coiled inclension of the beginnings of life.

Assimilation rather than absorption; simulation rather than transformation; extension rather than interiority. These are the two worlds evoked by Gilles Deleuze, who finds that Artaud and Carroll write on opposite sides of a fold, establishing what he calls the logic of sense (Deleuze 1990: 82-93). On one side, there is the mute world of bodies in their meetings and collisions and comminglings; this is the side inhabited by Artaud, the logic of sense, in the sense of the sensory. On the other side, there is the world of propositions, events and consequences: the logic of sense, in the sense of the word ‘sense’. One place of meeting for these two worlds or series is the mouth, which is where both eating and speaking take place, and so the site also of their possible commutation or confusion. As mathematician Charles Dodgson energetically defended the plane trigonometry of Euclid against the non-Euclidean geometry being developed in Germany during the 1860s by Bernhard Riemann and Hermann von Helmholtz (Richards 1988). But his writing also shows uneasiness about the relations between the plane and the solid, especially as they come together at table, or in tables, as, for example, when he introduced a statistical table showing the costs and levels of consumption of different wines at the Christ Church high table with the following mock- bon appetit:

There is not much to say about the third Table, which I have reserved as a bonne bouche for the now jaded reader. If he does not peruse it with a breathless delight, and does not make it the solid food of his waking thoughts, the golden ideal of his dreams – why, all I can say is, he must have some other subject which interests him more.(Wakeling 1993: 230)The logic of both Alice books is the logic of surfaces: the flat surface of the playing card in Wonderland and the checkerboard in Through the Looking Glass. Of course, there is energetic movement in another dimension too; there is perpendicularity, growth and shrinkage, upwards and downwards, as well as flatness. But the book provides an image of this perpendicularity in the White Rabbit’s fan, which is the corrugation or articulation of a surface, which never breaks the logic of that surface. (Perhaps the fan recurs in the irritatingly rumpled croquet-ground on which Alice must play.) The high and the low, opening and closing, telescoping and contraction, are all interpreted by the fan as a mere agitation or unfolding of a surface. The tradition of nonsense writing in the late nineteenth century, as extended into the work of Beckett and absurdism and modernism’s art of flatness, draws up to the surface of the writing, a sort of indifference or wasteful, trivial, masturbatory playfulness, which is precisely, pointless, never comes to a point.



Flatness is the most important quality of paper, but printing brought into being a new form of flatness, in the card. The playing-card is the ideal form of a network of cards and labels of all kinds that characterise the modern world since the advent of printing. The playing-card arrived in Europe only after the mid-14th century, with the advent of wood-block printing.

Playing cards are known as ‘flats’, a word which has also been applied to the gullible victims of the operations of ‘card-sharps’. Indeed the musical pun is literalised in the expression ‘playing sharps and flats’, meaning engaging in the tricking of fools. There is also an interesting commerce between flatness and skin in gaming slang. The victim of a cheating or a fixed game is said to have been ‘skinned’ in the sense of fleeced. Losing your shirt may be another version of this idea. Farmer and Henley record that the term ‘skin-faro’, refers to a cheating version of the game, in which the dealer takes up two cards rather than one. Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of the Underworld gives us a ‘skin-house’ for a gambling-den, and a ‘skin-game’ for any game that is fixed. Although it is possible to be ‘skinned’ in any rigged game, whether it be dice or roulette, or any other game involving stakes, the transference of the metaphor from the process to the means of the process is easier when the medium is playing-cards. For cards resemble the paper-money the movement of which they bring about more than any other form of gaming. Indeed, it may be that the suspicion which attached to the introduction of paper money, that conspicuously weightless form of transaction, may have borrowed its sense of the dangerous impalpability and anonymity of paper from the card-table. Playing cards also anticipate the massive multiplication of tickets and cards and labels of all kinds from the eighteenth-century onwards: visiting cards, tickets of admission, etc.

American college slang supplies more evidence for the association between cheating, trickery and the skin. According to Farmer and Henley, a ‘skin’ is a crib, often a translation of a text, especially when it is conveyed into the examination room on the palm of the hand. The idea behind this metaphor seems to be not just that the skin provides the surface for the inscription, but also that the inscription has come about by means of an impression, contact, or palm-to-palm printing-off.

Being skinned at the table is given a literal application in Richard Head’s The English Rogue, a collection of japes and mischiefs, in which a young man is tricked by his lover and ends up being stripped and flogged by her irate husband. Returning naked to his lodgings, he covers himself with a story of a disastrous session at cards or dice:

His Landlady (who was a Widow) seeing him in this condition, charg’d him home, asking, where he had been, how he came thus to lose his skin? Whether he had been rob’d? Though wanting Garments, yet he would not be without a Cloak to hide this venereal enterprize of his, and therefore replied, that falling into ill company, it was his ill hap to fall into that damn’d itch, that tickling humour of playing; that having won something, and like to win more, they would not let him play longer, but seizing him, stript him, and would have done, I know not what, had not his flight procured his safety. (Head 1671: 51)So card-playing and gambling games in general as a thought of skin, thought thinned to the hectic flatness of skin, and the risk of being reduced by trickery to the condition of the dupe or ‘flat’. But ‘flat’ seems to be a later term. More common in the heyday of gaming, from the Restoration to the mid eighteenth century, is the word ‘bubble’. The term probably derives from the South Sea Bubble, and signifies any swindling attempt to raise money based on a dubious or non-existent foundation. By transference of meaning, the bubble becomes the one taken in by this insubstantiality, and ‘bubbling’ the process of cheating or swindling such a victim. The bubble might seem to be the opposite of the flatness of a card or a surface, in all its richness, delicacy and depth. But, of course, a bubble is the ruse of substance, the appearance of depth and dimension only. A bubble is nothing but a surface stretched over air, stretched out by air itself, as though air itself had taken shape by being given a skin, which is itself as close as possible to being air. The membrane of the bubble is a conceptual borderline too, at the absolute minimum of mass that is able to hold itself together without either coagulating or shattering. In a bubble, thinness is given form; the form of a bubble depends upon this extreme thinness. The bubble is so tenuous that it is almost untenable, cannot sustain touch; a bubble is a thing of the mind, an image of the mind, but cannot be thought without implicit touch. Francis Quarles brings mind and world together in this beautiful little sequence in his Emblems: ‘What is lighter than the mind? A thought. Than thought? This bubble world.’ In each case, what is enclosed is assumed to be lighter and less substantial than what encloses. If the mind can have thoughts, and these thoughts can be of the whole world then, so the sudsy reasoning goes, the world must be nothing but the filmiest emanation of thought. The bubble world of capital, gambling and paper wealth is a subtle body, in the airborne insubstantiality of flatness.

Because of, not despite the fact of their superficiality, the fact that they have no insides, games can and do include the world. One of the first written reports we have of card-playing in Europe, a manuscript written in Germany in 1377, observes that, in card-playing, ‘the state of the world as it now is is excellently described and figured’ (quoted in Beal 1975: 7). A Royalist pamphlet of the English Civil War similarly folds together the world of battle and the world of cards. It is entitled The bloody Game at Cards, As it was played betwixt the King of Hearts. And the Rest of His Suite, against the residue of the packe of cards. Wherein Is Discovered where faire play was plaid and where was fowle. Shuffled at London, Cut at Westminster, Dealt at Yorke, and Plaid in the open field by the Citty-clubs, the country Spade-men, Rich-Diamond men and Loyall Hearted Men (no date, no publisher named).

Precisely because games seem to represent or incorporate the whole world, they can displace or assimilate the world, erasing distinctions between levels on the indifference of the table or the play-ground. The author of a pamphlet entitled The Ten Plagues of England in 1757 wrote that, as a result of gambling,

Persons of distinguished Fortunes and estates have been not only impoverished, but likewise become the Scoff and Ridicule of those beneath them. It is as easy to bett a whole Estate as a single Guinea; and, while the Infatuation is predominant, it is equal to the better; he cannot, at that Juncture, discern the Misery that may ensue, nor how soon his Family may be brought upon a Level with the meanest Individual; nor does he then in the least consider that his Country calls aloud for him to a more noble Game, where even Death is honourable, and Victory the Prize; where Life is despicable without Valour, and Courage is rewarded with Immortality. (Anon 1757: 16-17)Gambling and gaming means tabular life, life rased to an ecstatic plane. Gambling flattens and emaciates its victims, like consumption, as evoked by Callimachus, the opponent of gambling who is given what is meant to be the clinching arguments in Jeremy Collier’s Essay Upon Gaming of 1713:

Things lose their Strength and Complexion, and grow lean and languishing; and there’s not much Foresight requir’d to pronounce upon the Event. The Neglect of Business, the Misadventures at Play, the licentious Extravagance consequent to it, bring on the Decay apace; the Hectick comes forward to a galloping Consumption, and the Symptoms appear mortal. (Collier 1713: 24)The skin is identified with the self; it is what the self sees and displays of itself. Losing one’s skin is losing one’s very self – so that when Michel Angelo depicts himself flayed in the Last Judgement on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it is his cast-off skin that retains his identity and acts as his visual signature. But, because the skin, the sign of self, is so fragile and can so easily be imagined as being stripped off, it is also the means by which the self can be imagined as subject to transformation, trickery and transaction. The wearing of animal skins is regularly associated with the powers of healing, or the taking on of new or different selves, while invisibility is often conferred in stories by means of a cloak. The skin is the sign of the self’s transactability as a sign.

As such, it will regularly suggest erotic transaction. The danger of gaming for women in particular is that it the game will expand beyond the game, that it will bring into play not only the money brought to the table, but the lady’s entire fortune, and finally, her body and with it her honour. One is always gambling with one’s honour, gambling with the possibility that one’s honour will come to be at stake, or be forfeit. Women appear to have been drawn into card-gaming in large numbers from the mid seventeenth century onwards. Their bold involvement in gambling was much remarked upon. Although he supposes men to be even more dangerously reckless in gambling, Jeremy Collier asks ‘Have we not heard of Ladies losing hundreds of Guinea’s at a Sitting? And others more slenderly stock’d, disfurnish their Husbands Studies, and play off the Books, which it may be help’d to feed them’ (Collier 1713: 22) The new association between women and gambling allows, or produces a kind of hystericisation of card-gaming. Ihough the favoured image is that of ‘galloping consumption’ it is those playing it who are consumed. Gaming is represented often as a sort of anorexia, reducing the body’s fullness, and especially the fullness of the female body, and especially during the great wave of female card-playing from the mid seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth, to helpless, spectral flatness. As Richard Steele reported:

[T]here is nothing that wears out a fine Face like the vigils of the Card Table, and those cutting Passions which naturally attend them. Hollow Eyes, haggard Looks, and pale Complexions, are the natural Indicators of the Female Gamester. Her Morning Sleeps are not able to repair her Midnight Watchings. I have known a Woman carried off half dead from Bassette. and have, many a time grieved to see a Person of Quality gliding by me, in her Chair, at two a Clock in the Morning, and looking like a Spectre amidst a flare of Flambeaux. (Quoted in Hartmann 1930: xvi).The particular vulnerability of the skin to the wearing effects of gaming is attested to in Disraeli’s novel The Young Duke. At the end of a card session that has cost him £100,000 the young duke of the title resolves to play no more, declaring ‘I am a young man, and cannot play tricks with my complexion.’ When the gamester is a gamestress, she surrenders her whole life, the solidity and volume of her body, to the game. She is reduced to febrile skin, even as she risks losing her skin, being skinned by it. Gambling is such a serious matter because it involves the energetic exchange of goods of real value – losing the shirt off your back, and then the very skin off your back. For the true gambler, the delight and peril and delirium of the table come from its capacity to resolve everything into this same near-indifference, which then vastly accelerates the possibility of accelerated transfers: the flatness of the gaming table is the indifference that can trigger the possibility of vast differentials. The story goes that Archimedes was offered a reward for successfully overseeing the military defence of Alexandria. He asked for a chess-board to be brought and a grain of wheat to be placed on the first square, two on the next, then four, then eight, and so on, doubling each time. The grain required to fulfil the bargain would have exceeded the grain production of the whole of Egypt for decades. Or try this: take a sheet of rice paper, 1000th of an inch thick. Fold it over on itself. Fold it over again, and again, 50 times. The resulting column will be – seventeen million miles high. The raising of stakes, the running beyond measure which tabulation, the flatness of the board, seems uniquely to encourage, embodies both erotic danger and possibility. When a woman has once been corrupted, suggests De Flores in Middleton’s The Changeling, her dishonour ‘spreads and mounts like arithmetic’.

Gambling invokes a kind of flat time. In one sense, there is no time at all in gambling, time loses its meaning. But time is all that is left, too: gambling swallows up time. ‘It is momentary and eternal. The variety and vicissitudes of its movements forestall disgust while providing it with perpetual sustenance over which time holds no sway’ (Barbeyrac 1709: 286-7, trans. in Kavanagh 1994: 61). Here passion combines with indifference. The time spent in the game is time lost, time spent doing the same thing over and over again, an image of the churning of indifference. And yet the time of the game is marked off from worldy time: it is more intense and concentrated.

This indifference is to be found replicated in the bodies and especially the faces of gamblers. According to Jean Dusaulx’s De la passion du jeu (1779), gamblers become the same kind of visible emptiness of the game, the anything goes of complete contingency given a bodily form:

What particularly characterizes gamblers is their lack of any character. Their tumultuous and contrary feelings reciprocally destroy each other and leave only confused traces. They have the faces of lost men with no distinct physiognomy. (Dusaulx 1779: I, 133, trans in Kavanagh 1994: 36)Kavanagh sees gambling as the last upsurgings of an aristocratic culture of the gift in the growing economic rationality of the Enlightenment. But, on the other hand, the world of the gambling table was beginning to resemble the world of economics, in which speculation and calculation of probabilities would play a larger and larger part. This, too, was a ‘flat’ world, as was the world of the Encyclopédie itself, that document and model of total knowledge in the eighteenth century. The Encylopédie ‘brings together an unintegrated multiplicity of elements whose value lies outside any overarching system imposed upon its parts. Refusing such integration, the whole retains its status as a purely alphabetical conglomerate whose constituent parts remain free to establish new and unsuspected relations each with the others’ (Kavanagh 1994: 246). It is, in fact, a flat infinity, the unity of which consists in its permutability, the skin of adjacency that is its attenuated hypostasis.

Kavanagh interprets gambling as an aristocratic, and pseudo-aristocratic display of excess, indifference to the mere mathematics of money. Castiglione urges the aristocrat to demonstrate his indifference to money. ‘A man had to be able to hazard his fortune on the turn of the cards as coolly as his forefathers risked their lives on the luck of battle, Card-tables at Versailles, where millions of livres were yearly staked, offered a new tournament ground for blood to show its quality.’ (Kiernan 1988: 154). This aristocratic ideal of the poker face is found in the writing of de Méré, in the mid seventeenth century: ‘One must always gamble as an honnête homme, and be ready to lose exactly as one might win, such that neither outcome be visible on one’s face or in one’s way of acting.’ (de Méré 1930, quoted Kavanagh 1994: 46). The face and the board, the table, the screen, become interchangeable.

The gaming table is a membrane separating mind and body: purely physical amusements and exertions, and purely mental actions. Although it would be perfectly possible to play cards in a virtual form, without the physical shapes of the cards or the surfaces on which they are shuffled, cut, dealt, displayed and concealed, as chess masters are able to play several games simultaneously in their heads, the borderline condition of cards, poised between mental action and physical embodiment, is crucial to the phenomenology of card playing. As with any addiction, the accessory supports and rituals come to be an essential part of the addiction. Dolomedes, the hapless proponent of gaming in Jeremy Collier’s mock-debate An Essay Upon Gaming, has an explanation:

To command a Dye, or deliver a Bowl; to perform this to Excellence and Exactness, requires great Capacity and Improvement: to do this, we must throw our Understanding into our Limbs; the Brains must circulate like the Blood and the Head and the Hand go together…We must have the Machine perfectly manageable, and our knowledge at our Fingers-end. And to give you a Piece of old Philosophy, I remember at the University, the Matter must be so contriv’d, that the Soul may be tota in toto, & tota in qualibet parte. (Collier: 8-9)Cards literally enact the process of giving out and gathering in, of stripping and transferring skins, that is at work in the gambling game. This is not just because cards are as flat as the skin, it is because their flatness also involves the cruelty of the edge – which is to say, the chance: the Red Queen’s axe and her murderous ‘Off with their heads!’ is her harmlessness (‘nothing but a pack of cards’) set on edge. What is the most important thing about a playing-card? Its edge. A playing card can be supported by its edges, resting against another card at an angle. The edges of playing cards are what give them their magic architecture. The edge is what is unencompassable in the flat card. The edge is the possibility of turning, the turn of the card on which so much may depend. It is the reversibility, in an utterly flat world of large and small, death (‘Off with his head!’) and insignificance (‘you’re nothing but a pack of cards’).


Idle Hands

Cards also have a mimetic closeness to and intimate involvement with the life of the hand which no other form of gambling possesses. The playing card is designed to be held in the hand, and mimes and multiplies the form of the hand. We speak of a hand of cards, and one of the earliest disciplines that must be acquired by every card-magician is that of palming, or concealing a card in the palm while the back of the hand is presented to the viewer. The reversing of this process, transferring a card from the front of the hand to the back, is known as ‘back-palming’. (Do cats eat bats? Do bats eat cats?) This emphasis on mirror-imaging, on the hand as an abstracted redoubling of the body, with its front and its back at once complete opposites of each other and yet also in intimate community with each other, is what gives playing-cards their particular kind of strange life.

The playing card is both the object of the hand and itself an avatar of the hand, having transferred to it many of the metamorphic powers of the hand. Playing cards are magical partly because they are meaningless in themselves; their power only comes from the signs they carry, and the meaning of those signs in relation to other signs. The meaning of the playing card is its arbitrariness, its flatness, its lack of intrinsic life or meaning, the fact that no card means anything on its own. Its flatness signifies this dry semioticity. Its life comes from contingency and adjacency, from what occurs when it is laid next to another card. In this emptiness of intrinsic form or purpose, the card resembles the hand itself. But card tricks all depend upon the transfer of the conceptual magic of the card to the physical plane, by making the card or deck seem to come to life as a physical object. The card, or run of cards, which should be empty and flat, deriving their meaning entirely from what is made of them, develop autonomous powers. One of the commonest tricks employed by magicians is the forcing of an apparently free choice. This involves presenting the subject of the trick with a fanned out pack, face down, with the invitation to pick out any card. Surprisingly, if the magician nudges forward a particular card, seeming to offer it, there is a good chance that it will be accepted. In seeming to be offered, or rather to offer itself, in this way, gesturing or pointing to itself, the card signifies flat paper taking on the life of the hand, the prestige of the prestidigitator.

The energetic involvement of the hands in the playing of games has had a great deal to do with its associations with lasciviousness. In the course of his invective against ‘diceplay and other profane gaming’ in 1586, Lambert Danaeus wrote ‘I call all those Games and Playes unhonest, unseemely and unlawfull, wherein there is any euill, unhonest, filthie, unchast or unseemely action, practice or pranke, as namely, lasciuious talke and wanton words, unchast groapings and ribald handlings, unshamefact gestures and fancieful behauiours’ (Danaeus 1586: C2r, F2v-F3r). The particular form of unchaste groping and ribald handling that is most commonly associated with gambling is masturbation, that great universal metaphor of our relationship to the world. In his essay on Dostoevsky, Freud associated gambling with masturbation:

The ‘vice’ of masturbation is replaced by the addiction to gambling; and the emphasis laid upon the passionate activity of the hands betrays this derivation. Indeed, the passion for play is an equivalent of the old compulsion to masturbate; ‘playing’ is the actual word used in the nursery to describe the activity of the hands upon the genitals. The irresistible nature of the temptation, the solemn resolutions, which are nevertheless invariably broken, never to do it again, the stupefying pleasure and the bad conscience which tells the subject he is ruining himself (committing suicide) – all these elements remain unaltered in the process of substitution. (Freud 1988: 459).The devil is closely implicated in games of chance, and especially dice, with which he shares his name. And the devil is, as everybody knows, a masturbator; his deceptions and simulations and fibbery and fancification are masturbatory. The devil, as we know, makes work for idle hands. The great assault upon the vice of masturbation through the nineteenth century and beyond was predominantly an economic affair. Masturbation was a waste of time, strength and vital power. It was a diffusion of the energies required to gather and hold together the self in fruitless pleasure. But masturbation, as a form of illicit play, or an illicit playing with the idea of play, had been associated with the parasitic frivolity of gaming from early times.

Play was not at the beginning deuised among men for any Commerce, barter, buying or selling, chopping or changing, traiffique or entercourse, whereby to procure and catch unto our selues any thing that belonged to any other: but onely to bee a kinde of meanes & way for recreation of the mynd, and a refreshing or exercising of the bodie: in so much that whosoeuer useth Play to any other ende or purpose, doth not rightly use, but filthilie and disorderly abuse it, exchaunging that which serueth for an honest recreation of Man, into a most uile and filthy kind of gaine and couetousnesse, which (as the Apostle teacheth) we ought chiefly to eschue. (Danaeus 1586: C2r)Masturbation has traditionally been thought of as the opposite of life, the primitive, empty, narcissistic, mirror-image, piratical simulation of real life, thinning its energy, its ecstatic eminence and potential into flatness. In the mirror-play of masturbation, mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show, and ‘itself is all the like it has’ (Dickinson 1970: 401). When two surfaces come together, according to heterosexual fantasy, there can only be repulsion or inert equivalence, not the energising interchange of opposites. (Hence perhaps, the insulting historical term ‘flat-fuck’ for a particular lesbian act, or fantasy of one.) For the nineteenth century, masturbation was regarded in the light of a remorseless bioenergetics, bent on conserving energy, as negativity, as the waste of energy or potential; as the mode of the parasite. But surfing, the thousand plateaux which spread out from our culture of simulation and stimulation, has become intimately associated with masturbation, single, double and multiple. The conjoining of surfaces has become the topology of desire, involving now a positive energetics, a charging through waste. The internet is sometimes thought of carelessly as involving disembodiment, but, if so, it is a disembodiment of a particular kind, one that is announced in the tabulations of the Enlightenment. It is a disembodiment into flatness, into the energetic life of that abstract skin. The haggard, lantern-jawed masturbators that haunt the imagination of nineteenth-century sexual theorists are the embodiments of Thomson’s second law of thermodynamics, pointing to the inevitable dissipation of energies and purposes in the universe. They are the demonic shadow of that other thermodynamic demon, Maxwell’s demon, which preserved energy differentials; the masturbator is a dissipator of tensions. The masturbator is the on the other side of all those hearty, heroic strivers and turners to account, the Dickenses, the Trollopes and the Harriet Martineaus. But the masturbators of the nineteenth century have won and the moralists have lost. Our age of information is nothing other than the apotheosis of the onanist.

If one were to start from somewhere else, from the history of the sensation of itch (Connor 2000), there would be a plane of immanence to be formed between gambling, which I want to have shown you is the speculation of and on surfaces, writing, and sexual desire. There are, traditionally, three things for which you itch: sex; to write; and to game. Itch provides the tegument across which they can communicate. The itch to scribble is often thought of as a displacement of sexual desire; but scribbling is also speculation, and sexual speculation is at work on the card-table. All of them are evoked as an itch, by which I mean, an unappeasable desire, a desire for unappeasable desire, or the desire to perpetuate the desire for the end of desire. All of them are itchy sensations because of the need of friction or abrasion which both expresses and sustains them. Who wants satisfaction, in sex or in scratching? We scratch to intensify itch, we play to lose in order to have a reason to continue the play. What is so brilliantly called ‘surfing the internet’, in an idiom the spread of meanings of which I am here reaching after, seems to convene all of these proliferative superficialities.

Deleuze’s account of sports which join one to a rhythm, rather than initiating a rhythm of one’s own, or overcoming a resistance, complements Sartre’s account of skiing in Being and Nothingness:

We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there’s a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports – surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding – take the form of entering into an existing wave. There’s no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting-into-orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to “get into something” instead of being the origin of an effort. (Deleuze 1995: 121).The difference between skiing and windsurfing embodies an important and almost allegorically obvious difference between Sartre and Deleuze. For does not Sartre speak of the appropriative activity of the individual, the for-itself which cleaves through empty space, colonising it, making it its own through its projects, while for Deleuze there are no for-itselfs and in-itselfs, but only conjugation and adjacency, no projects, only slewings, divagations and branchings? How, for Deleuze, could there be a for-itself, a being taking itself as an issue for itself, under these conditions? What makes Sartre and Deleuze resonate with each other, is the shared assumption of flatness. This entering in to the wave, or joining oneself to the lift of the thermal, belong to what Deleuze in his later work called the ‘plane of immanence’, the making out of which is life and the lively work of inventing concepts which is thinking. They represent the effort to yoke things together, rather than to propel them or make them from nothing, to have things move in parallel, like two surfaces sliding over one another. It is an abrogation of perpendicular thinking and action. It seeks immanence rather than eminence, moves alongside rather than to and from. Surfing and sliding and skiing and skidding and glissando, all forms of participative interfacing, are beginning to govern our thinking.

Joining one’s energy to a wave, or a force, therefore hitching a ride on it: but this is not quite how it works when one surfs the internet. For if the internet seems like an infinite resource with infinite powers of connotation, drawing one sideways, beckoning one on, yet there is no source for the energy, nothing behind it, except our own curiosity. The internet provides an ideal field for gaming and the self-multiplications of solitaire sexuality. It no longer depends upon paper, but it does not take place in thin air either. The internet, like the universe, is flat, spreading out uniformly, through replication. This is what ensures that it has no shape of its own, that it has neither been bent into uniformity, nor exploded into absolute multiplicity.

And in (on? amid?) the internet, masturbation is not just an occasional possibility, it is a general mode. The mobile phone has become the favoured mode of connection, because the telephone allows one to stay in touch, with yourself, with self-touching itself. Digital technology means that you can let your fingers do the talking. The office prank that involves pressing the hand, or, more commonly, other, more erotically rounded parts of the body against the photocopier, represents the delight and aspiration of flat-life, of planitude. Peter Greenaway’s Belly of An Architect gives us the bulky, unplaceable, mysteriously interior life of the body – specifically the abdominal body, the ‘deepest’ part of the body – turned into skin, into an endless series of photocopies, which invade the visible surface of the film. And the screen, that great imaginary sublimation of the page and the playing card, provides the as-if surface for all of these transactions. It is becoming our shape: the thought of the shape of our thought.



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