Coding the Digital Occult Part II: Semiotic-Poetic Vectors

This is the long-awaited sequel to Coding the Digital Occult: The Binary [Techno]Pagan and Vodun Ontologies of Cyberspace – originally delivered at the first Occulture conference in Berlin – about Virtual Reality’s mystical conception in mathematician Vernor Vinge’s sci-fi writings, and, famously, as inhabited by the vodou loa in William Gibson’s Count Zero; the binary mathematical DNA and ontology of Cyberspace and its origins in West African Vodun divination systems, a long history of binary thought that precede Western computation, Leibniz’s binary code and geomancy by centuries perhaps. 

The Coding the Digital Occult project aims to trace the occult histories of digital technologies that are hidden in its code. This is a speculative account of the lines of flight out of binary, linear, colonial and patriarchal culture that have always been held within its excluded middle. It proposes an alternate history of simulacral worlds and potential future socio-technical relationships that escape their binary substrate via the occult non-binary vectors that come into being or leak through the infinite states between zero and one. This evasive ternary set reveals the immanent nonlinear, chaotic fluidity of life.


At the same time zero was being introduced across Europe, Lucretian atomism and the Jewish mystical practice of Kabbalah were also resurfacing and evolving. By the seventeenth century atomism was appropriated for its metaphysical poetics, and Kabbalah for Christian mysticism (Cabbalah).1) Lucretian atomism and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life glyph are both binary-based, semiotic-poetic simulacral thought systems that precede and preempt the digitalisation of the western world; they could be considered as proto-digital objects. This sequel focuses on the semiotics and poetics of digital’s binary elements of 1 and 0, and the way the becoming-semiotic of number combined with existing fears of zero in the west to create particular kinds of digital simulacral systems. It builds on and extends arguments about the culture-changing semiotic impact of zero in the west by mathematician Brian Rotman, to suggest that while the disruptive (or destructively transformative) capacity of zero is due to its pre-existing cultural symbolic power in the west, its capacity to affect culture is intensified by its combination with one, in the binaries that form the substrates of simulacral socio-technical systems. 

This text aims to show how new digital occult phenomena are afforded in the west by the seventeenth century convergence of the semiotic number system with ideas about simulacra and zero-one binaries, culturally embedded by their mediation through poetic and aesthetic forms that use metaphor. Coding the Digital Occult Part II examines some of the semiotic baggage zero carries, through its occult and poetic vectors. In doing this, it re-ciphers seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and Cabbalistic Tree of Life glyphs as proto-digital ontologies; digital twins and virtual reality as contemporary iterations of these correspondence-based simulacral systems. It traces the poetic and semiotic emergence of digital, simulacral forms in the west; how these shape and are shaped by cultural concepts; and expressed, transmitted and refined through the proto-digital cultural artefacts that evolve into digital, simulacral identities and worlds.

Atomism is an ancient Greek natural philosophy based on semiotic zero-one binary whose central metaphysical thesis that the world is made up of void and atoms was later banned as heretical. The K/Cabbalistic Tree of Life symbol system diagrams a series of 10 [or 112] spheres called sefirot that each represent a different dimension, emanating from a zero-infinity origin and culminating in the semiotic fusion of 1 and 0 in the number 10; its use for micro- and macrocosmic modelling and prediction are what turn it into an esoteric simulacra that operates through analogy or correspondences.

This text first reviews zero’s co-occurrence with the re-emergence of Lucretian atomism, Kabbalah and, later, the Christian Hermetic-Cabbalistic tradition that helps to culturally embed with it the occult companion concepts of 0-1 binaries and simulacra. The next section outlines the horror culturally inspired by zeroes and voids and Rotman’s theory about the effect of introducing Arabic numerals and zero to the west. He contends that when representational Roman numerals are replaced by the Arabic semiotic number system, number acquires narrative semantic properties. He argues that zero consequently brings forth the modern, individualist meta-subject through its cultural applications in paper money, algebra, linear perspective painting and Kabbalah. This section then suggests that the introduction of the zero-one binary in this context completes the abstraction of the figure-ground distinction represented by the object(s) or one(s) out of the void / zero to bring forth not only meta-selves but simulacral meta-worlds. However, the subsequent review of base 2 (binary) systems shows how Cantor’s set exposes non-binary branching lines of flight out of the infinite states between zero and one. The final section investigates the semiotic-poetic manifestation and transmission of simulacral binaries as they appear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in the dissemination of Lucretian atomism and Cabbalah (in its Christian mystical appropriation). It proposes that the semiotisation of number makes it susceptible to poetics and transmission via poetic vectors, which facilitates its wider cultural diffusion, with the aim of speculating ways the occult workings of zeros and ones extend their influence through seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and Renaissance painting to contemporary science fiction and digital technological forms, which together lead to the construction of new proto-digital technologies and digital virtual worlds. It begins to sketch out an example of evasive, non binary leakages found in the work of seventeenth century English metaphysical poet, scientist and proto-science fictionalist Margaret Cavendish.

Zero History

Zero, Lucretian atomism and Kabbalah begin to resurface in Europe around the same time, in the Middle Ages [C9-C13]. These entities had been suppressed, forgotten or underground for centuries during the reign of the church and its tradition of heretic-burning. Void and simulacra lurked in the forbidden, heretical philosophy of the atomists, theorised in the 5th century BC by Greek philosopher Leucippus and his pupil Democritus, and central to Epicurean philosophy. They resurface slowly by current standards, over several hundred years. The general circulation of atomist and Kabbalistic manuscripts is hindered by the arduous task of hand copying books and low general literacy until the introduction of the printing press in the C15-16 (although the general public is still not highly literate and in any case books are expensive and travel sluggishly). Slowly as this occurs compared to the current speed of information transmission, recent research nevertheless shows that Lucretius’ Epicurean, atomist poem, De Rerum Natura, circulates rapidly for its time (Palmer, 2014), and that Lucretian atomism is influential for sixteenth and seventeenth century poetry. Scholars suggest esoteric K/Cabbalistic knowledge is transmitted orally and diagrammatically (Chajes, 2020; Yates, 2001)3 during these centuries, effecting a faster (and safer) transmission than books, although this is harder to trace and evidence.

Philosophical atomism is a natural philosophy based on the idea that everything is made from aggregates of invisible particles called atoms; these atoms are in constant motion through a void. Lucretian atomism refers to the expression of this philosophy in the epic poem, De Rerum Natura (translated as ‘on the nature of things’) by a first century poet called Lucretius. The influence of Lucretian poetics on seventeenth century poetry is explored in recent scholarship, with an emphasis on the poetics of the atom and the influence of the atom (rather than the void) on poetic form (Blake, 2019; Clucas, 1991; Gorman, 2021; Hock, 2021; Palmer, 2014). Literary scholars argue that De Rerum Natura was significant for seventeenth century metaphysical poets like Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish, who was also a scientist, drew on its ideas about the relationship of spirit to matter or the ultimate nature of reality, for its poetic rather than philosophical and scientific value, as “a tool for thinking” (Palmer, 2014, pxii) within the experimental arena of fiction. That is, she tested ideas in and through the medium of poetry and fiction. In the seventeenth century, the boundaries between science and literature are rather thinner and more porous than they later became. The question of the appropriate narrative form for communicating scientific experiments was a topic of debate (Preston, 2022; Spiller, 2007). Literary theorists Preston and Spiller both contend that there is a two-way exchange of ideas between seventeenth century science and poetry that was productive for both; and that they produce knowledge in complementary ways. It is in this milieu that Lucretius’ poem was more widely reintroduced. While Lucretian atomism was scientifically discredited, it was picked up by poets formally and poetically as the newly rehabilitated idea of the void became a permissible poetic novelty. 

The introduction of zero into Kabbalah in a cultural milieu that brings together Muslim and Jewish thought around the twelfth to thirteenth centuries in Provence and Spain (most prominently in the Kabbalistic text the Zohar, whose authorship and date has long been contested) is discussed in histories of Kabbalah and zero respectively (Chajes, 2020; Rotman, 1987; Seife, 2000). They suggest that the void had been repressed in Kabbalistic thought for the same heretical reasons discussed above. Numerical zero was a significant concept for Kabbalah, from its origins in the Sefer yetzirah (the earlier Jewish mystical text from which the sefirot derive), although it is unclear if this had the same semiotic connection between zero and the idea of an original void, or God creating the world out of nothing. Void, nothingness and zero become semiotically entwined in the cultural milieu of the seventeenth century. 

Horror Vacui: Zero as Sign

Zero takes the blame for a lot. Graphically and symbolically it is very similar to the letter O: round, circular, an infinite but empty shape. However, it carries a heavy semiotic load in a way that the letter O doesn’t. No one was scared of words with O in them, no one in danger of being put to death for heresy because they talked about oranges or olives. Zero carried with it a fear of nothingness and of the unknown; its strange mathematical behaviour enhanced this fear. Unlike any other number, multiplying by zero does not increase the numerical value, it turns it into nothing, collapsing the number line. Dividing by zero is even worse, it explodes number to infinity. Zero and its significatory connection to both the void and infinity were long considered dangerous and heretical in the west; in Italy in 1600 the cleric and mathematician Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic for claiming that the universe was infinite and the earth was not at its centre. As we will see, zero (0) is a metaphysical complicator immanent to the Arabic numeral system, and the ideas of void or nothingness, infinity and the unknown that it stands for evoke an existential horror, an horror vacui, when it arrives in Europe.

Zero was repressed, the void exiled by Greek mathematical philosophy, as a figure that evoked profound existential anguish in western culture. Although a metaphysical concept of void existed in Greek astronomy, and despite the book of Genesis in the bible stating that the world came into being from nothing, the idea that there could be nothing was thought to threaten the existence of God and the human in his image at the centre of the universe. Moreover, the idea of zero, of nothingness, contradicted people’s lived mathematical experience. The philosophies of Pythagoras, Aristotle and Ptolemy were developed within a physically-based number system, applied to real things: geometric figures, divisions of land, rulers, compasses and beads on an abacus. This cultural milieu is central to understanding the horror of zero in Europe. For such a material mathematics, the concept of zero and the counter-intuitive mathematical abstractions it enables, along with its companion the void, must have seemed alien if not terrifyingly spooky. This cultural context is integral to the occult reception of zero in Europe and the emergence of an experimental digital occult through the binary systems that become digital technologies.

It was the introduction of Arabic numerals that brought zero into European mathematics, a system that altered the possibilities of thought (in the idea that there could be nothing) and fundamentally changed the way the west did accounting and mathematics. Arabic numerals facilitated the move from accounting with abacuses and mathematics using analogue, shape-based geometry to rapid calculation with large figures and the western invention of algebra (which had already been around for a long time in India). As Brian Rotman points out, with Arabic numerals numbers become semiotic. 

Semiotics refers to signs or symbols, communication and carriers of information. In semiotic theory, a sign is often divided into signifier and signified – the signifier being the carrier of meaning and the signified being what it means to the receiver; it can mean different things to different receivers. No longer the written equivalent of tallies, numbers become a sign system akin to writing (Rotman, 1987). Their transformation to symbols abstracts them, releasing number from indexical connection or iconic similarity to their signified and affording associations and logics that are not grounded in or restrained by what we think we know about physical reality. The idea that zero could exist and, through the abstractions of negative number enabled by a semiotic number system, that there could be less than zero were radical conceptual shifts.

The symbolic is a virtual (super-natural) realm of dream and imagination, that when shared can have real socio-cultural effects; zero and semiotic number afforded the rapid computation the capitalist system is constructed on. Zero finally begins to accelerate officially, in contravention of the prevailing Aristotelianism, because of the advantages it brings in accounting for speed and volume of trading. Arabic numerals are accepted in the west with the rise of secularism. The heretical and outlawed zero is overtly if reluctantly accepted by a newly secular academy, as it speeds up the circulation of goods at the same time as accelerating its own circulation, enabling larger figures to be calculated. Without it, capitalism as we know it would certainly not exist; and possibly(?) would not exist at all.

A general acceptance of and fascination with ideas about zero and 0-1 binaries sees an explosion in these concepts in many aspects of western culture in the seventeenth century, including a new appreciation for Lucretius’ poem in literary circles and the hidden influence of Cabbalistic thought. Rotman shows how the introduction of zero into the specific techno-cultural environment of Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries leads to a cultural and technical coevolution, one that shapes capitalist economies. He points to the following significant C16 and C17 events made possible by the cultural acceptance of zero: the invention of algebra in the west (it had already long been in existence in the east) by Vieta; the invention of paper money (money as a sign, external to the signifying system of gold currency); the shift towards multi-perspective and linear perspective images in painting (not an entirely new idea – the camera obscura was already around – but a newly significant idea). He argues that when semiotic zero is introduced into the European cultural milieu, it has consequences for ideas about the self that are expressed in linear perspective painting, Cabbalah and mercantile capitalism (out of which evolves industrial, monopoly and financial capitalism).

Rotman proposes that zero is a semiotic disruptor that creates new kinds of cultural subjects, individuals at the centre of their own, dislocated universes. He contends that all of these produce a meta-subject (that is, an implied subject, or a subject that refers to a subject) and their corresponding loss of deixis (their location in space-time, their capacity for ‘hereness’ and ‘nowness’). In the era discussed here, the semiotically enabled separation of a symbolic self from the physical self (in language, art and dreams) undergoes transformation and individualisation thanks to the introduction of zero and the effects of its cultural semiotic significance in Europe, which produce a new meta-subject, or meta-self. 

Rotman describes a narrative arc, first enabling the creation of a meta self out of an original split between self and other in symbolic representation; and more recently, via the symbolic of parallel computation, a dissolving of self and other as distributed selves proliferate (Rotman, 2008, p99). Paper money is a promissory note, promising to pay the bearer (anyone who possesses it) the amount of its face value; the abstract bearer is the meta-self it creates. The digital occult financial system will be discussed at length in a later chapter. For now, let us simply observe that where paper money is a debt that is endlessly deferred and underwritten by the state or nation’s bank, digital money has neither implied bearer nor underwriter; it circulates endlessly, like the proliferating digital selves or meta-selfies.

Likewise, the vanishing point, or zero dimension, of Italian linear perspective painting positions the viewer as its subject, an implied self or meta-subject looking onto the scene depicted at the front and centre of the image. I spoke about linear perspective at a previous ELSS (Etic Lab Summer Seminar), and have discussed zero-dimensionality in painting elsewhere [here (pp. 30-44)], so this is a brief recap. The vanishing point is zero-dimensional, it is the point where the image collapses into nothing and at the same time stretches (unseen, implied) into infinity. In this, it behaves like zero in the number line, expressing both nothingness and infinity. In seventeenth century Dutch multi-perspective painting (what art historian Susannah Alpers calls seeing objects), it is not a subject looking out through a window but a floating eye that sees, with not one but multiple vanishing points. The floating eye or seeing object is taken further in contemporary drone images, satellite photography, military surveillance and Google maps, in what artist Hito Steyerl (2012) calls vertical perspective. In all these cases, worlds are presented for the eye or eyes of a human viewer and they change the way we view the world. We will return to digital occult aesthetics in the next chapter. Here, suffice it to say that the mathematical logic of the worlds created by digital simulacra is most visible in algebra and the development of finance capitalism from paper money systems, while their semiotic nature is obscured by the numbers; just as the underlying mathematical logic of linear perspective and its development in digital images is obscured by the visual and narrative in art.

The implication of this for the newly rehabilitated zero’s introduction into Cabbalistic thought lies in its production of a practical Cabbalistic diagram that functions as a microcosm and macrocosm of ‘man’ and the cosmos emanating from unknowable, unmanifest dimensions at the zero point. Jewish scholar J. H. Chajes describes how Kabbalistic trees – or ilanot in Hebrew – become ritual, magical artefacts proliferating from the fifteenth century as they are disseminated on parchment sheets and scrolls, as easily portable mnemonics and practical aids for occult ritual (Chajes, 2019; 2020), and simulacral or divinatory systems. In brief, the Kabbalistic ilanot map attributes of the divine, through a complex mystical numerological and symbolic system. They gradually acquire their established form, following predominant Renaissance scientific (astronomical and natural history) arboreal diagrammatic forms (Chajes, 2023). Kabbalah is appropriated and adapted by Christian mystics, who consider its practical magical application an ultimate proof of the divine. Jewish and Christian K/Cabbalist forms and histories are intertwined as there is an ongoing exchange throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I cannot speak to the subsequent development of Jewish Kabbalah, but the Christian Cabbalist adaptation is later taken up by nineteenth century occultists. It is in this nineteenth and twentieth century practical magical application that Cabbalah’s meta-subject reaches its secular apotheosis, in the individual magician. The meta-self positioned outside of the microcosmic-macrocosmic diagram of man/universe takes the place of God, using this new proto-digital technology for predicting and altering self and world. 

Zero has continued to be possessed by an occult overcoding in the west, whether as a metaphor for the terrible unknown or understood as a magical vector of multiplication, acceleration and mysterious behaviour. There is a long tradition of using metaphors of voids, nothingness and vacuums for figures of alterity in literature and philosophy, as feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray’s critique demonstrates (Irigaray, 1974). As I show in my thesis, exactly the same metaphors are used to describe the alien figure of the octopus in nineteenth and twentieth century literature (Moran, 2023). There was a very real panic about the year 2000, as businesses prepared for all their computational systems to potentially fail and the media speculated about aeroplanes falling out of the sky at the stroke of midnight NYE Y2K due to the temporal ambiguity caused by the double zero of 2000 in the legacy two-digit year codes used in computer programming, dubbed the millennium bug; not inherently a [mystical] zero problem, but a panic that was semiotically imbued with the uncertainty associated with zero and that, in turn, seemed to offer some cultural credibility to irrational fears of zero. There was a rash of books published in the late 90s and early 2000s about the mysteries of zero (Barrow, 2000; Kaplan, 2000; Odenwald, 2002; Plant, 1997; Seife, 2000); and a cult of demon-summoning philosophers obsessed over the accelerational magic brought by the alien technology of zero that produced our cybernetic capitalist system with its predictive or divinatory iteration loops. 

The current iteration of cyberculture – digital artists and philosophers engaged at the mirror-shine HD edge of contemporary digital, simulacral technologies – returns to ecological realities. Twenty years on, the discourse about zero now overtly focuses on the ecological horror of climate change in the rather belated drive towards net zero or zero carbon.

Linear perspective painting, paper money, algebra, atomism and the Cabbalistic tree of life – all having their substrate and structuring logic based on zeroes and binary systems, all containing dimensionless points – are all digital objects that use metaphor to generate simulacral worlds (an idea we will return to in the Poetics section below). The introduction of zero to Europe, more or less complete by the Seventeenth century, is often presented as the mystical or metaphysical force at play, in everything from accounting to Cabbalah to finance capitalism, and as the key element for the digital occult. Rotman suggests “both the language and logical structure of computers privilege zero in a very profound way” (Rotman 1987, p88). The suppressed fear of zero, and its metaphysical overcoding by the figure of the void (in Christian and Kabbalist texts), certainly helps to establish it as a metaphysical signifier in western culture. While Rotman argues the semiotic reception of zero in western culture produces new kinds of meta-subjects, this chapter extends his argument to suggest that the combination of semiotic zeroes and ones in simulacral binary systems have created our mathemagical world.

Base 2 Systems

“All nature, as it is in itself, consists

Of two things: there are bodies and there is void”

(Lucretius, trans. Melville, 2008, p15, ll. 419-420)

Let’s take a step back here to review the divinatory basis of binary systems, before moving on to discuss their semiotic, poetic coincidence with atomist simulacra through multiple entangled semiotics of zero and the dyad void [0] and one [1]. 

To recap briefly from CtDOI, some theorists suggest the I-Ching and Ramon Llull’s combinatorial machine come out of West African divination systems and practice of Vodun, which in turn leads to the Cantor set in maths and modern western cybernetic thought (Skinner, 1980; Eglash, 1999). West African Bamana sand divination, for example, has a long tradition of iterative looping to generate sets of binaries. Yoruba Fa divinatory diagrams are visually similar to the Cantor set. Cantor’s set is also recursively constructed; it proved that between zero and one there are a more-than-infinite number of points, and became the basis for computational modelling of natural self-organising systems.   

However, while Cantor’s set showed a more-than-infinity contained within one, the Bamana reductively code the more-than-infinite possibility of the future down to one reading (prediction) (Eglash, 1999). 

As I said in my previous paper, the Cantor set and the divinatory diagram prefigure the systems concept of ‘phase space’ (most basically summarised in Wikipedia as “a space in which all possible states of a system are represented, with each possible state corresponding to one unique point in the phase space”). Binary zeros and ones make up the substrate of cyberspace, the substrate of digital computing, while the space between the ones and zeroes contain self-organising systems of infinite possibility (Pesce, 2001, p225).   

Donald Knuth’s Art of Computer Programming [vol 4, fascicle 0] describes how machines are particularly “good at dealing with the two-state on-off quantities that we usually denote by the digits 0 and 1” and comments on the richness of “the amazing ability of 0s and 1s to encode information as well as to encode the logical relations between items, and even to encode algorithms for processing information” rapidly, in ways that our usual decimal (base 10) system for example cannot (Knuth, 2008, p47). 0 is figured in opposition to and alongside 1 in binary systems (in western computation, representing ‘off’ and ‘on’) to encode a potentially infinite number of virtual states. Encoding algebra into binaries takes 1 to correspond to “true” and 0 to “false,” leading to the multiple uncertain (possible) states Boolean logic represents, just as the zeros and ones of West African Vodun divinatory systems encode a range of possible states or futures.

Like its precursor in Vodun, this complex, reflexive, nonlinear, immanently base-2 system is a generator of deterministic chaos. The binary mathematical system, not the idea of nothingness, is what was imported from African Vodun: base 2 calculation was alien to European mathematics [including Arabic, Greek and Cabbalistic systems] until Leibniz’ invention in the seventeenth century (Skinner, 1980; Eglash, 1999). Unlike the Vodun system, in western culture this is  communicated and interpreted – as in Cantor’s set and Boolean logic – to output multiple possibilities. When the binary system is imported into European culture, it therefore introduces new magical predictive mechanisms but also the idea of multiple states of uncertainty. 

Philosophical atomism and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life are both systems of metaphysical thought based on the idea of a zero-one binary origin. In philosophical atomism, the world is composed of multiple ‘ones’ (atoms) moving through a zero space (void); everything is one or zero (1 / 0). The semiotic-poetic coincidence of the atomist simulacra with the binary number system, despite their major differences, lies in its dyad of void/nothing and atoms/ones as the substrate of their physical or digital worlds, respectively. In philosophical atomism, there is one overarching void in which many atoms, like ones, exist. Atoms make up all objects; the void is what facilitates their free movement, enabling action, movement, change, sensory perception and multiple possible futures or uncertain future states. In distinction, zeros and ones both abound in binary mathematics and can in theory be combined to represent the infinite number of different uncertain states available between zero and one, or an infinite number of alternate digital dimensions. In digital computing, this manifests algorithmically through many different interconnected structures, in digital markets, in the many forms of AI and in virtual reality dimensions, to be investigated in detail in future chapters of this blog. This is moving towards the financialised conceptualisation of cyberspace newly branded the metaverse (in a cynical appropriation of another 90s cyberpunk imagining of virtual reality, from Neal Stephenson’s SF Snow Crash). In literature, alternate virtual dimensions become the possibility of alternate virtual worlds or futures.

The Tree of Life symbol system appropriated by Christian Cabbalists diagrams a series of 10 spheres called sefirot that each represent a different dimension or facet of divine essence, emanating from a zero-infinity origin and culminating in the semiotic combination of 1 and 0 in the number 10. The K/Cabbalistic diagram, known as the Tree of Life, appears central to the newly embraced zero in its representation of the one emerging from nothing. In Cabbalah, zero’s significance and semiotic parallel with void seems closely related to the Tree of Life glyph showing the sefirot Keter, the crown, at the top representing both zero and one. Keter represents the Cabbalistic emanation from a dimensionless point that is both nothingness and infinite. Keter is both position zero and the first position. In this sense, it is a binary-based (proto-digital) analogy for the first manifestation of [divine] Will out of Unmanifest Existence (Fortune, [1935] 2022; Halevi, 1991; Rotman, 1987); God is both no thing and the one that emerges from nothing.

Where Vodun divinatory practices resolve in one prediction, digital techno-magic is based on an epistemological uncertainty that resolves in multiple possibilities or states (the infinite possibilities that lie between 0 and 1). The cultural context of the seventeenth century rise of secularism and science brings new kinds of uncertainty as science gradually replaces religion. In a reversal of the religious paradigm based on a priori faith, science begins with uncertainty and resolves in a dominant hypothesis, belief or prediction. However, the multiple unknowns created by the new binary mathemagical system generate new forms of expression.

What follows is an overview of simulacral binary systems whose multiple states of uncertainty are afforded by Arabic semiotic numerals; and whose semiotisation in turn affords poetic transmission and effects. At the same time, zero-one binaries and semiotic number are the basis of digital systems that facilitate new forms of divination or new ways of making predictions, digitally.


“For who knows, but those stars we see by night
Are suns which to some other worlds give light?”

(Cavendish, ‘Of Stars’, ll. 7-8)

When number becomes semiotic, it becomes an abstracted system akin to writing, and more susceptible to poetic effects. In sixteenth and seventeenth century England, this coincides with an intensification of metaphor and analogy in poetry, in a form now called metaphysical poetry. There is some, often necessarily speculative, evidence for atomist and esoteric influence transmitted and operating through poetic forms. Recent literary research proposes that atomist ideas significant for Renaissance materialism were substantially diffused via Lucretian-inspired poetics, from literature to philosophy and science (Gorman, 2021; Hock, 2021; Palmer, 2014; Passannante, 2011; Rzepka, 2012). Adam Rzepka traces the revival of Lucretian atomist poetics and Epicurean materialism back to the late sixteenth century, in Shakespeare and Spenser, the same authors in whose work Yates reads Cabbalistic influence. Rzepka contends that atomism is transmitted through the very poetic forms it introduces in De Rerum Natura, commenting that the “slippery atomist lineage, with its cryptic, multivalent poetics and shadowy circles of transmission” is prone to occult readings (Rzepka, 2012, p116). Although a clear dismissal of Yates’ hypothesis (along with her contemporary, M. C. Bradbrook) in favour of his own theory of poetic transmission, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive positions. Rzepka’s method is very close to Yates’ approach of analysing literature and its poetic forms, as well as their authors’ communities of interest and practice, for evidence of the influence of what could be considered heretical and therefore – at that time in England – treasonous ideas [as the monarch was also the head of the church] that are necessarily coded and hidden to all but an insider few.

Rotman and Yates respectively argue that the influence of zero and K/Cabbalah can be traced through their cultural expressions in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe. Rotman’s thesis is that zero has a significant impact for ideas about the self that are effected through their expression in linear perspective painting, Cabbalah and mercantile capitalism; Frances Yates’ occult history in turn suggests that the spread of Cabbalah had a significant influence on Elizabethan (second half of the sixteenth century) poetics. She speculatively portrays the famous Elizabethan court philosopher and mathematician John Dee as a Christian Cabbalist, whose sphere of influence diffuses knowledge of the occult philosophy and its core symbolism both directly and indirectly to a number of successful poets of the time (Yates [1979] 2001). More concretely, the metaphysical turn in sixteenth century poetry is theorised by the Hermeticist (or Hermetic-Cabbalist, in Yates’ preferred terminology) Giordano Bruno, who was also familiar with Cabbalah. Moreover, Bruno and his neoplatonist, Hermetic-Cabbalist predecessor Marsilio Ficino were both familiar with Lucretius. Atomism and Cabbalism in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe therefore seem to be rather entangled.

By the seventeenth century the poetics of atoms, voids, ones and zeroes are widely manifest in English literature. Yates’ analysis of sixteenth century works offer precedents: her reading of The Faerie Queene suggests a Hermetic-Cabbalist numerological-symbolic schema, while her analysis of Shakespeare suggests a Cabbalistic numerological framework, both of which she hypothesises owe something to the universal harmony work of Francesco Giorgi, the Cabbalist Friar of Venice. Rzepka, meanwhile, points out references to Lucretius in Shakespeare and a translation from Lucretius in The Faerie Queene (Rzepka, 2012, p113, 116). Recent volumes on Lucretian materialist-inspired erotics in early modern poetics (Hock, 2021) and the atomist poetics of indivisibility (Gorman, 2021) cover much of the seventeenth century poetry ground, building on earlier work mentioned above (see also, Clucas, 2011; Palmer, 2014; Spiller, 2004). Literary and philosophical scholars have argued that the transmission of Epicurean thought and its most well-known thesis of atomism is effected in a self-replicating form through its own ideas and the poetics they generate (Brooke and Shearin, 2012; Serres, 2000); either the poetics of Lucretius, offering the most complete surviving account of Epicureanism, is a case in point (Passannante, 2012; Rzepka, 2012) or it is Lucretius’ poetic packaging of Epicureanism that becomes its self-replicating vector. The key self-reproducing ideas these histories discuss are Epicurean materiality, its analogy of atoms with letters (to be covered in more depth in Part III), the atomic swerve or ‘clinamen’, and fluidity, turbulence and chaos. Rzepka’s account of the nonlinear transmission of Lucretius’ text, via a series of historical and disappearances and reappearances, is itself possessed of an occult logic (Rzepka, 2012, p120).

Does Cabbalistic thought coexist with atomist ideas in these writings, as poetic and metaphorical novelties or heresies? Do these works express a fascination with the potential of zero-one binaries and simulacra for thought and poetics, that is shared by both of these forbidden epistemologies? Or are there conceptual properties essential to philosophical atomism, triggered or afforded by the introduction of zero, that are picked up in and transmitted through the Cabbalistic Tree of Life glyph too: the semiotic zero-one binaries and simulacra?

The atomist philosophical account of perception is significant for the belief that writing can reveal new truths. In this philosophy, sense perception is not direct, rather it is produced by atoms that emanate from objects. The atoms create simulacra for sense perception, like skins shed from objects that carry the forms, sounds or smells of the object to the receiver where they are perceived indirectly, as kinds of virtual objects. In philosophical atomism, simulacra are atoms given off by objects that mediate sensory perception; in contemporary semiotic theory they are defined as kinds of copy, signifiers that are often mistaken for the thing they refer to (their referent). For atomists, sensory perception was indirect. Different kinds of atoms emanating from objects mediated different sensory perceptions, like copies of the sensory qualities of the object that float through the air and are perceived when they make contact with the corresponding sense organ and into the brain. In Lucretian thought, the materiality of objects in the physical world and in writing differ in degree not kind: “fantasy and matter exist along the same spectrum” (Hock, 2021, p17). Here, writing in fact seems to be considered more real than visual perception, as writing offers direct engagements with the world, through thought, rather than the indirect perceptions of the senses. 

Lucretius compares the [visual, semiotic] letters that make up language with the tiny particles of matter (atoms) understood to make up the world. Literary theorist Gerard Passannante contends that the materiality of literature was integral to Renaissance materialism, a claim that derives in large part from the Lucretian analogy of letters and atoms, and their significance for the progress of textual criticism (Gorman, 2021, p7). Jesse Hock further argues that by making an analogy between atoms and letters, Lucretian atomism enabled the hypothesis that it is possible to generate proof through writing rather than testing the things themselves (Hock, 2021, p11). The relation between sense perception and atoms in Lucretian thought is significant for the idea of the truth value of images in writing; this is extended in metaphysical poetry’s central conceit that linguistic metaphors can reveal things that were previously unknown.

Lucretian ideas about simulacral perception and truths transmitted in writing resonate with seventeenth century poet, philosopher and scientist Margaret Cavendish’s position on writing and experimentation (Hock, 2021). The metaphysical conceits – or extended metaphysical metaphors of this form of poetry – are based on unexpectedly bringing together dissimilar objects and ideas to generate a new sense of the intangible thing described. As in Lucretian atomism, seventeenth century metaphysical poets seemed to believe that their comparisons between animate and inanimate things expressed ideas about the relationship of spirit to matter or the ultimate nature of reality. Cavendish, for example, writes birds as ships or clouds as horses in adaptations that merge the morphologies of animate and inanimate entities:

“And as those horses which are highly fed

Do proudly snort—their eyes look fiery red— 

So clouds exhaled, fed by the hot sun,

With sulphur and saltpetre fierce become.”

(Cavendish, 1664, ‘Similizing the Clouds to Horses’, ll. 9-12)

In Poems and Fancies (1664), Cavendish compares the winds to music, the brain to a garden, the head to a barrel of wine and to a hive of bees, among other things.

Metaphor was not a new idea, but in sixteenth and seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life it was newly intensified and given greater significance. The Cabbalistic Tree of Life glyph is a visualisation of an analogy to help initiates reach understandings of the unknown that are otherwise ungraspable by the human mind, while metaphysical poetry’s central metaphysical idea is that writing can make the unknown knowable through metaphor. Joseph Mazzeo suggests the Renaissance use of analogy and metaphor, or correspondences, as forms of knowledge spans philosophy and science, and it is this tendency of thought that is expressed and elaborated in poetry. This represents a turn away from the previously prevailing use of mimesis in poetry, largely deployed through description. Mimetic theory derived from Plato’s poetics; Mazzeo proposes that a sixteenth century desire for novelty lead to a revival and conceptual extension of another Platonic idea, that of correspondences or “universal analogy” (Mazzeo, 1954, p300-301). This was first theorised by Giordano Bruno, as ‘concettismo’ or conceit, referring to the extended metaphors of what is now known as metaphysical poetry: 

“analogical thought is a fundamental property of the human mind in any age and that the notion of universal analogy has a long history which reaches back to Plato. The important point is that Bruno and the theorists of the conceit employed the principle as the basis of a poetic for the first time.”

(Mazzeo, 1952, p89)

Cavendish’s ‘fancies’, or speculative fictions and poetry are part of this anti-mimetic turn away from description and towards invention or creation. She extends poetic metaphysical conceits into her utopian, proto-science-fictional poetry and prose, creating parallel fantasy worlds.

Many seventeenth century poets are fascinated by the imaginative possibilities of alternate worlds opened up by ideas from atomist poetics and seventeenth century scientific discoveries about worlds beyond human perception, from microscopes; the idea that other invisible worlds may exist nested inside the world visible to human perception. Cavendish is not an atomist but she experiments with these ideas in her writing, often playfully. She writes a series of atomist poems, investigating scientific ideas and speculating on other worlds in writing at the same time as male peers such as John Flamsteed, Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke, William Harvey, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and Christiaan Huygens are using instruments to observe and experiment with faraway and hidden visual worlds new to them through telescopes and microscopes. She  speculates on the microscopic, microcosmic worlds that might be contained in such mundane, feminine objects as earrings (Cavendish in tongue in cheek mode; she is never one to miss an opportunity for satire even while seriously hypothesising):

“And lightning, thunder, and great winds may blow
Within this earring, yet the ear not know.
Fish there may swim in seas, which ebb and flow,
And islands be, wherein do spices grow;
There crystal rocks hang dangling at each ear,                    
And golden mines as jewels may they wear.”

(Cavendish, A World in an Earring, ll. 11-16)

These worlds imagined as miniature versions of the human world, drawing on atomist ideas about simulacra, prefigure science fictional tropes. 

The atomistic motifs of alternate, nested worlds are frequently sampled by nineteenth, twentieth and twenty first century SF (science fiction). Contemporary SF film Welt am Draht / World on a Wire (Fassbinder, 1973), based on the novel Simulacron-3 (Galouye, 1964), takes the simulacral world as experimental arena idea literally. In it, scientists have created an electronic replica of the world that they use like a crystal ball to predict the future. The twist is when the lead scientist realises that his own world itself is an electronic replica inside another world, one of an unknown number of nested worlds; he is living in a digital mathemagical simulacral dimension that is used to predict the future for upstream worlds. Seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and the Cabbalistic glyph use of simulacral representation as a testing ground is a proto-digital concept; when modern digital technologies are invented, they combine a binary substrate with semiotics and poetics in their code superstrates (the layers of code in various coding languages that make up, for example, the web page or VR experience) and their narrative wrappers (textual content, such as words, images and sounds). When they have sufficient correspondences to real-world datapoints, digital worlds can attain simulacral status as virtual mathematical model or digital twin that, like the science fictional Simulacron-3, are used to forecast the most likely outcomes of events or actions.

Philosophical atomism and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life contain the conceptual seeds of digital (binary-based) simulacral systems. The Tree of Life is understood by Cabbalist practitioners as a microcosm (representing “man”) and a macrocosm (of the universe) (Fortune, [1935] 2022; Halevi, 1991). This makes it simulacral, a kind of copy that models a set of relations or correspondences; which also means it can be used for prediction, or divination (Fortune, [1935] 2022). The Cabbalah’s binary substrate, as mentioned above, is analogical, as Kabbalah scholar Halevi explains: “the first manifestation of [divine] Will out of Unmanifest Existence is a dimensionless [zero] point. This dot of Manifest Existence is the source of everything that was, is and will be” (Halevi, 1991, p27). The dot of Manifest Existence is the sefirot generally known as keter, or crown, from which the rest of the glyph emanates. Here, one emerges out of nothingness. [Note that although this text focuses on binaries, base-2 is not the only number system represented in the Tree of Life glyph; it has a complex numerological structure that also contains ternary, quaternary and decimal elements, that are traversed by 32 paths.] Lucretian and Cabbalistic simulacra differ from analogue magical ideas of the double that exists in myth, in that simulacra have a proto-digital ontology; both being based on binaries of void and one. 

Cavendish explicitly thought of her poetry and fictional writing as experimental dimensions, arenas where she could create and test new ideas in writing, in a virtual reality, that – particularly as a female scientist, unable to access all the facilities, equipment and dialogue available to her male peers at the Royal Society – she was unable to in her physical reality. Her utopian fiction The Description of a New World, Called Blazing World wasinitially published as a companion piece to her scientific work Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, as its speculative counterpart. It was a response to scientist Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, published the year before, about the miniature worlds seen through his microscopes4. Her fiction offers a critique of Hooke’s work and the Royal Society scientist-philosophers’ thought on scientific progress that corresponds with the position marked out in the scientific text, while presenting a thinly veiled satire on members of the Royal Society in its animal-human characters. The bear-men in the story, for example, argue about what they see through their telescopes. Cavendish’s alter-ego, who she has given the role of Empress of the New World, scolds them for believing in the illusory truth of their instruments over the truth of their eyes: “your glasses are false informers, and instead of discovering the truth, delude your senses” (Cavendish, [1666] 2000, p.171). The bear-men sheepishly and hilariously admit that they “take more delight in artificial delusions than in natural truths” (Cavendish, [1666] 2000, p.171), because they like to have subject matter to disagree on. Cavendish offers her own alternative approach to scientific progress, one based on learning from direct observations in nature rather than inventing artificial instruments. If the atomist claim is taken seriously, it suggests that virtual worlds in narratives are simulated realities no different in kind – only degree – from the simulacra presented to our senses.5

The aesthetically rich semiotics of metaphysical poetry, Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life diagram all aim to make the unknown and unknowable more accessible through metaphor and allegory. We have seen that the atomist idea that reality is perceived through simulacra is significant for the belief that writing can reveal new truths, and that this resonates with Cavendish’s concept of fiction as an experimental testing ground. It is more generally important for the idea that metaphysical poetry and Cabbalistic glyphs can help make the unknown accessible to human understanding, through analogy and metaphor. Analogy and correspondences are also key to the way the binary systems function as simulacra, in modelling reality for making predictions. The semiotic manifestation of simulacral binaries found in Lucretian atomism and Cabbalah are transmitted via poetic vectors, which facilitates its wider cultural diffusion. The occult workings of zeros and ones thus extend their influence through seventeenth century metaphysical poetry and Renaissance painting to contemporary science fiction and digital technological forms, which together lead to the construction of new proto-digital technologies and digital virtual worlds. Their occult workings, in the space between the zero and one, show where they are open to new kinds of socio-technical formation.


Zero might not be the sole metaphysical cause of trouble, but it is what enables and complicates binary or base 2 systems and digital, simulacral cultural forms, from visual [photographic] realism to financial capitalism and its successor informational [surveillance] capitalism, that produce digital, simulacral meta-selves and meta-worlds. The emergence of new proto-digital phenomena are afforded in the west by the seventeenth century convergence of simulacral concepts, the semiotic number system, zero, binary mathematics and experiments with metaphor; or the idea that the unknown could be accessed through metaphor. Zero’s co-occurrence with the re-emergence of Lucretian atomism, Kabbalah and, later, the Christian Hermetic-Cabbalistic tradition helps to culturally embed with it the companion concepts of 0-1 binary and simulacra that together lead to the construction of new proto-digital technologies and digital virtual worlds. While the convergence of these revived or newly significant concepts provide material and cultural conditions favourable to the eventual emergence of digital technologies, the repressed horror of zero finds its subcultural expression in new, digital, occult ideas.

Zero is a cultural construct that takes a very particular form in the west due to its semiotic, or the ideas it is thought to represent, that are produced, refined and transmitted through proto-digital poetics. Zero gathers some extra baggage on its journey through the European sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and now stands, semiotically and poetically, for what is unknown as much as for emptiness and nothingness. Zero and binaries produce cultural effects through simulacra, and – with Boolean logic – introduce [multiple states of] uncertainty and the unknown; which together create conditions for making predictions and producing meta-selves and meta-worlds; and through which instabilities or non binary leakages are introduced.


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  1. (alternate spellings: Cabala, Cabbala.) This text largely discusses the Christian mystical appropriation and adaptation, Cabbalah. It follows Judika Illes (2022, px) in her introduction to a new edition of Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah, published by Red Wheel / Weiser: https://redwheelweiser.com/book/the-mystical-qabalah-9781578637522/ , in differentiating three distinct iterations of this thought system by using different spellings: referring to the original and continuing Jewish tradition as Kabbalah; the Christian renaissance Hermetic adaptation that made its way into and influenced English sixteenth and seventeenth century culture as Cabbalah; and the new syncretic version that emerged in the late nineteenth century as Qabalah.  ↩︎
  2. If the hidden dimension, Da’ath, is counted; which, generally, it is not. ↩︎
  3. Thanks to Andy Sharp for spotting the missing piece of the puzzle here and recommending Yates’ book. Sharp’s new book The Astral Geographic, an occult world travel guide, has just been published by Watkins: https://watkinspublishing.com/books/the-astral-geographic-the-watkins-guide-to-the-occult-world/ ; his previous book, a magical psychogeography of England, is available from Repeater Books: https://repeaterbooks.com/product/the-english-heretic-collection-ritual-histories-magickal-geography/  ↩︎
  4. She also exacts fictional revenge on her male peers’ dismissal of women’s ideas in The Blazing World, depicting the Royal Society scientists in unflattering light as human-animal chimeras, with each species short-sightedly concerned with their own narrow sphere of interest, generating proofs from instruments they have invented based on simply extending their own perceptual apparatus, and so magnifying their biases. ↩︎
  5. A similar idea is put forward in contemporary cognitive narratology, where the imaginative experience of events and characters in fictional narrative differs in degree rather than kind of cognitive experience. That is, it suggests that the way narrative experience is cognitively processed differs more in intensity than mode; that perceptual events are psychological as well as physical (see Stockwell, 2012; Caracciolo and Kukkonen, 2021).  ↩︎

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