The reading of Borges’ Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius reveals an innate structure of the creative process; and its power to restructure the underlying metaphysics of our shared reality.
Borges has an incredible gift to lead the imagination into a path of labyrinthine proportions — that in their imaginings deconstruct the very truths of reality. In my ongoing investigation into the nature and function of creativity and innovation, I have become obsessed with Borges’ short story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius — which in its reading, I realized a certain isomorphism to the process of social innovation. This story remains a mirror-like fragment of an incomplete totality, which I stumbled upon — it simultaneously mimics the path of the innovation and also is a product of creation itself.
The short story is a beautifully crafted journey into the reality of the imagination. Borges being part of the oeuvre of South American writers that explored magical realism, a style of writing, which explores the borders of the real in attempting to understand reality itself. At the heart of his writing is a paradox so profound, it asks a fundamental ontological question. This became known as the Borgesian Conundrum, “whether the writer writes the story, or if it writes him.” Rather than resolving this, the works of Borges imply that there is a mutual inscription, further that the creative act of Being is one that alters the totality of Being- it alters the past and restructures the future.
The story of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, starts with Borges, who finds an article in an encyclopaedia about a mysterious country called Uqbar. He uncovers a massive conspiracy of a group of elite intellectuals to imagine and thereby create a world, called Tlön. This world has its own set of metaphysical and physical laws, in which the mythology of Uqbar is set.
In the beginning of the book, Uqbar is thought to have existed somewhere on Earth around the Middle East. As he investigates further, he finds more fragments and clues about the existence of this world. He is lead through a labyrinthine maze of texts and books in his attempt to verify the existence of this place. What is most interesting in this journey is that he discovers a passage, which says that in the literature of Uqbar, there is never mention of reality but rather imaginary worlds. He finds evidence of two imaginary worlds Mlejnas and Tlön.
Eventually the discussion around Tlön moves beyond Borges, and further to a broader group of academics and intellectuals. This leads to an extended discussion around the languages and philosophy of this lost world. In particularly Borges’ explores the epistemology of Tlön, whose inhabitants hold an extreme form of idealism, that they emphasize the reality of a world before inference to things. In explaining this further Borges discovers that one of the languages of Tlön lack nouns, its central mode is in the use of impersonal verbs qualified by monosyllabic prefixes and suffixes, which in effect act as adverbs. In another language, the basic unit of language is not the verb but the adjective, which when in conjunction with other adjectives infer what we would call a noun.
There is a common reading of Borges that he is proposing that the world of Tlön holds an extreme form of Berkeleyan Idealism — denying the reality of the world. Indeed Borges does undergo an extensive discussion of Berkley in the short story:
Hume noted for all time that Berkeley’s arguments did not admit the slightest refutation nor did they cause the slightest conviction. This dictum is entirely correct in its application to the earth, but entirely false in Tlön. The nations of this planet are congenitally idealist. Their language and the derivations of their language — religion, letters, metaphysics — all presuppose idealism. The world for them is not a concourse of objects in space; it is a heterogeneous series of independent acts. It is successive and temporal, not spatial. There are no nouns in Tlön’s conjectural Ursprache, from which the “present” languages and the dialects are derived: there are impersonal verbs, modified by monosyllabic suffixes (or prefixes) with an adverbial value. For example: there is no word corresponding to the word “moon,”, but there is a verb which in English would be “to moon” or “to moonate.” “The moon rose above the river” is hlor u fang axaxaxas mlo, or literally: “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.” (Borges,1998, p.73)
However if we examine this a bit closer we find a thread, which tugs at the very notion of ideal. For there to be an ideal there has to be the notion of the non-ideal or specific — in this way the notion of ideal is inherently fixed to an object, thing or noun. For me the true thrust of this imagining is conceived of a world of pure intensities. It is this world of intensities, which Deleuze’s whole ontology embraces — in fact for Deleuze reality is a unified field of intensities, which is territorialized through differences (Deleuze, 1994). It is this act of difference, which produces things — though these things are emergent properties of intensive differences.
There is a further understanding commonly held about the story, that the members of Tlön deny reality. However they obviously do take things to be real, for they act in language, however it is based on a completely different metaphysics. This alternate metaphysics does not privilege presence but possibility and becoming. This unreality liberates Being from the ontic status to that of the ontological status — that of Being as possibility. Further it shows that the possibility of being is also the impossibility of it.
As the story continues, Borges’ inquiry unravels Tlön to the world; slowly the rest of the world gradually hears more about Tlön, its people and their ways. In this way they slowly adopt the ideas of Tlön and begin affecting reality in the same way. At the end of the story, these ideas take over completely eradicating the cultures of the real world.
When I first read the story, I had begun an investigation into the epistemological machinery of innovation and like Borges, within his own story, this story was the first fragment of my investigation. It was a puzzle so intriguing it occupied my thoughts week after week — stuck in my mind like a grain of sand within an oyster. I read and reread this story many times — mainly because I felt it was significant in some way. I couldn’t exactly understand why it was; yet I was drawn to it again and again.
What I eventually found was that this journey, the journey of Borges was isomorphic to my journey, similarly it transcribed a route that was common to philosophical, innovative and entrepreneurial activity. As we recall the story, there are a few stages. Firstly the discovery of some anomaly, which just doesn’t quite sit right — in this case Borges stumbling over the article about the lost world. We may call this our Gödel statement , which is a statement, which is true for the system but inexplicable by the theory of the system  . Secondly, the inquirer unfolds the investigation by being present to the anomaly; slowly more and more fragments appear. These fragments are part of a whole picture, which seems to remain whole, but also incomplete.
As more and more pieces gather together, there is a fundamental breakdown in the epistemic machinery, things do not make sense — this is because the old reasoning is insufficient to explain the new evidence. In this breakdown the intervener asks — what may be true? In this certain axioms of a new system emerge in dependence of each other — this is the basic scaffolding of a new truth.
In generating basic axioms of a new system, we articulate its coordination, rules and laws. In the process of Borges, the evidence within the encyclopaedia pushes him to question his own epistemological machinery and in so doing the ontological status of things. So thirdly there is a prototype of a new sense — an innovation in the epistemological machinery of the situation (what Spinosa et al. call reconfiguration). This is not as instrumental innovation would have it; as a development of a new concept or thing, but an innovation around how new concepts are made and what is called to ‘be plausible’ — innovating within a background of understanding or ontological design.
Next having found this radiant gem, the intrepid explorer uses it as tool within a social context. This new prototype disrupts the predominate sense, using the basic anomaly(s) it has found. This new assemblage is defined in its relationship to a context of intervention- by its ability to affect and be affected. It is this dialogue of counter effectuation that weaves in a new sense. It is important to note here that this process of validation is not an imposition, but a dialogue of mutual becoming. In the story Borges finds that his discovery leads to this being a discovery of a wider socio-cultural context.
In the next stage there is larger and larger adoption of this new sense, which becomes an unavoidable truth. Over time this takes hold until the old sense is forgotten, and a new world has emerged. This last stage is such a profound ontological transformation that both histories and futures are altered. In this way the a posterori creates a new a priori; a transcendental empiricism.
This may seem all rather esoteric _ and abstract _, but this form of ontological design is a pervasive mechanism within society to day. Spinosa et al. (2007) in their research of entrepreneurs detail six qualities which they think are most important:
“(1 )the entrepreneur innovates by holding some anomaly ;(2) he brings the anomaly to bear on his tasks;(3) he is clear about the relation of the anomaly to the rest of what he does, and once he has a sense of a world in which the anomaly is central, such as the world of work, he embodies, produces, and markets his new understanding; (4) to do this he preserves and tests his new understanding…to see how it fits in a wider experience (5) as we have claimed but have yet to argue, he must take this new conception and embody it in a way that preserves its sensibleness and the strangeness it produces, seeing to it that his new understanding retains for others the authority it had for him and reconfiguring the way things happen in a particular domain; (6) finally he focuses all dimensions of entrepreneurial activity into a styled coordination with each other and brings them in tune with his embodied conception, so the critical distinctions involved in appreciating the product become manifest in the company’s way of life.” (Spinosa et al, 2007 p.50)
This pattern is not only found in business though, it is found in physics, biology, mathematics and philosophy. Moreover, since this process begins with an individual experience of significance, this is also our main way we approach the world and the uncertainty inherent within it.
The work of Einstein is a great example here. His work in general relativity began with empirical observation, which led to a reformulation of basic laws of physics. It is important to note however that his intervention did not disqualify the formal system of physics entirely but explained it in a fundamentally different way, namely general relativity. In this way he addressed the epistemic machinery within the milieu of physics. Today his work has completely changed the ontology in which we live.
Borges’ strategy in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, is profoundly fitting to our current investigation because it aims at envisaging a world freed from the shackles of a metaphysics of presence. If Heidegger aimed to outline the mechanisms of presence , Borges helps us imagine a world made, not inherited:
“How could the world not fall under the sway of Tlön, how could it not yield to the vast and minutely detail of an ordered planet? It would be futile to reply that reality is also ordered. Perhaps it is, but orderly in accordance with divine laws (read:” inhuman laws”) that we can never quite manage to penetrate. Tlön may well be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth forged by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.” (Borges, 1998 p.81)
 It is important to note here that this is a posteriori, that it is a found, empirical piece within a system.
Borges, J. L. (1998). Collected Fictions. New York: Penguin.
Deleuze, G. (1994). Difference and Repitition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Deleuze, G., & Guttari, F. (1988). A Thousand Plateaus. Minnepolis: University of Minnesota PRess.
Deleuze, G. and Parnet, C. (2002). Dialogues II. Continuum London.
Derrida, J. (1989). Psyche: Inventions of the Other. Reading de man reading .
Elias, C. (2006). Stumbling unto Grace: Invention and the Poetics of Imagination. Janus Head , 63–72.
Heidegger, M. (2011). Basic Writings. New York: Routledge Classics.
Heidegger, M. (2010). Being and Time. New York: State University of New York Press.
Heidegger, M. (1995). Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Spinosa, C., Flores, F., & Dreyfus, H. L. (1997). Dsiclosing New Worlds. Boston, MA, USA: MIT Press.