This essay is concerned with how rhetorical claims concerning 'the real' or a 'return to the real' almost invariably find themselves caught up in specious repetitions of one kind or another. Having offered a series of examples thereof and arguments thereagainst, the essay turns to an examination of an ancient writerly algorithm, the palindrome. Several crucial features of the palindrome are identified and described, and the claim that the palindrome paradoxically offers a real 'real through line' is justified: in fact, the palindrome is shown to be 'a fragment of the real.'

Keywords: palindrome – real – repetition

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni
            — anonymous Mediaeval Latin palindrome, détourned by Guy
            Debord for the title of his 1978 film

The dream which occupies the tortuous mind of every palindromist is that somewhere within the confines of the language lurks the Great Palindrome, a nutshell which not only fulfils the intricate demands of the art, flowing sweetly in both directions, but which also contains the Final Truth of Things.
           — Alistair Reid

1. Preliminaries: Rhetorics of the Real

In preparing for the symposium The Real Through Line—which was the occasional cause or instrumental motivation for the present essay—I wrote, perhaps somewhat bad-temperedly, the following abstract:

Today, everybody seems to want the real. Even better, they want the Real—capitalised. And from the point at which they are, wherever that is, they often tell you: this is real. A rattle-bag of candidates present themselves as if deserving of triumph, trailing their booty behind them: the economy, the environment, experiences of all kinds. But to think you know what’s real, where it is or can be found—let alone to think you’re the person to announce its presence—could be considered a little paranoid. Nothing wrong with that, of course, although that might further suggest that it’s also an expedient way of excluding terrors and others as much as affirming a value or a knowledge or a truth. Could it even be that the term is regularly invoked in order to evade its claims? I personally can’t think of anything less real than poetry. Is that one of poetry’s things, then—its powers of unreality, its unrealling of the world?

Although I appreciated the ambitions of the symposium, not least for the rigorous and properly poetic ambiguity of its title—does it mean ‘achieving the Real by means of line [verse?]’ or ‘you may have been mistaken about the real through-line, but this is it’? Does it assert itself as such (‘this is the real through line’) or broach a research program to be undertaken (‘what is the real through line’)?—I did want to underline just how ungroundedly and irritatingly speculative such calls for ‘the Real’ can be. For the intense expression of an intense desire does not necessarily justify either the desire or its object, nor say anything about the reality or import of either. On the contrary, ‘intensity’-qua-alibi may even betray a certain confusion or rejection of what it seems to call for—even if it is, absolutely, just as intense as is claimed.

Moreover, as my abstract had it, wherever we find any desire or injunction to ‘get real’, any number of candidates immediately obtrude with their particular, competing claims to speak most adequately, appropriately, apodictically or absolutely of it. Many doctrines and discourses may a priori seem to have much more powerful or, at least, more plausible or persuasive claims than poetry to perform such a role. Take modern science, whose formalisation, experimentation, and integration with effective technologies at once give it a lock onto something that other discourses can not only not rival, but which resets the very grounds, methods, and ambitions of those discourses, coming to function—at least in post-Galilean modernity—as something like a paradigm of knowledge of the Real. Or take economics, which—despite its somewhat-less-than-exalted-history as ‘the dismal science’—clearly now functions as what the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard would denominate a supreme genre (Lyotard 1983). Or, of course, there’s modern philosophy too—whether ‘analytic’ or ‘continental’, logical or linguistic—for which theses on reality, on realism and on the Real, are its bread-and-butter. Yet, as Alain Badiou has put it:

the crucial point (as Hegel grasped long ago with regard to revolutionary terror) is this: the real, conceived in its contingent absoluteness, is never real enough not to be suspected of semblance. The passion for the real is also of necessity, suspicion. Nothing can attest that the real is the real, nothing but the system of fictions wherein it plays the role of the real (Badiou 2007: 52).

If Badiou’s point is crucial in this context—I will return to it below, albeit from a different point of view—I would like to draw attention here to a specific point, the point at which these discourses themselves clearly have to provide at least some kind of justification of their own allegedly privileged relation to the Real. Let’s take as example a recent, emergent movement in continental philosophy, that of so-called ‘Speculative Realism’, where we regularly find such claims as the following made by its proponents:

By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourse, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinker is turning once more toward reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers collected in this volume, all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique. Some have proposed notions of noumenal objects and causality-in-itself; others have turned towards neuroscience. A few have constructed mathematical absolutes, while others have attempted to sharpen the uncanny implications of psychoanalysis or scientific rationality. But all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humanity more generally. (Bryant et al 2010: 3)

Note, moreover, in addition to the purportedly noteworthy novelty of the movement and its personages (‘the new breed of thinker’), three further peculiarities at stake in this invocation. The first is the declaration that we are experiencing—as a relief and as a benefit—a kind of ‘return to the real’ after an extended and deleterious period of dissolution and despair. The second is that this return is linked to a kind of desire for something other than simply talk, a repudiation of ‘the traditional focus on textual critique’. Reality is other than discourse, must be other than in discourse. For discourse can’t be real, can it now? The third is that such a ‘return’ seems to involve a kind of explosion of heterogeneity, of incommensurables. It, unlike its predecessor, is not ‘repetitive’ despite being characterised as a ‘return’. Rather than, as perhaps might be expected, the Real compelling universal assent—after all, shouldn’t what’s real be incontrovertible, something upon which we are all dependent, one or in some way unified?—it is here linked rather to utter disagreement about means and ends. This declaration, then, seems to be inconsistent: we are doing the new, we are returning to the old; we are one, we are many; we think, but about that which we cannot think ....

One might therefore doubt that such a declaration is as ‘real’ as it would like to be, even if we take it at its word. Note how the claims for the return to the real, despite being clearly and explicitly broached as a re-turn from textuality to the object, that the situation remains entirely characterised in textual terms. Note too that it is eminently disputable whether anybody actually ever really held the positions that are being condemned here. Note that, above all, the structure of this declaration itself must hold for any unity whatsoever to be given to the diversity that it introduces and declaims: nothing binds us together except our rejection of those who reject the real.

In the terms developed by JL Austin, extended by John Searle, criticised by Jacques Derrida and then taken up most notoriously by contemporary queer theorists such as Judith Butler, it’s clear that this is therefore a performative, not a constative utterance (see Austin 1975; Searle 1969; Derrida 1988; Butler 1990, 1993). The key criteria for performatives are success and failure, not truth and falsity. As Emile Benveniste puts it: ‘a performative utterance has no reality except as it is authenticated as an act. Outside the circumstances that make it performative, such an act is nothing at all. Anybody can shout in the public square, “I decree a general mobilisation”, and as it cannot be an act because the requisite authority is lacking, such an utterance is no more than words; it reduces itself to futile clamour, childishness, or lunacy’ (Benveniste 1977: 236). If Benveniste’s analysis may well hold for many kinds of performances, it cannot be universally true. Why not? Because the performative I am analysing here—a kind of manifesto, or declaration of the status of a new movement—can only function by seizing an authorisation that it does not yet by definition have, but which must be expressed as if it were already established. Authority is at once presupposed and produced by the utterance itself: it requires authority to be uttered, but the authority is itself an outcome of the utterance (in this context see above all Derrida’s extended and diverse writings on this phenomenon).

Leaving aside all the games of institutional capital, personal self-aggrandisement, and fashionable appeals that a cynical reader might be tempted to discern as operative in such passages, it remains the case that the authors must create the situation they are claiming to be the case in order that they can break with it, even if it is in order to say that what or who they are is already underway. Even more strongly, such declarations are among the key conditions for the establishment of a movement; they are themselves the creators of the situation from which they purport to depart. Furthermore, such declarations must, historically speaking, be constantly reiterated—repeatedly repeated, so to speak—but as if they weren’t. At its most infantile, this descends into name-calling and pure assertorics: you’re not on about the real, but I am; you claim to be on about the real, but you’re really not; my real is more real than your real.

What is highly significant about such rhetorical operations in this context is that such a ‘return to [or of] the Real’ is a clarion that has itself been constantly repeated throughout modernity: from the Renaissance philosopher-editors through Francis Bacon and René Descartes to GWF Hegel through Edmund Husserl (‘Back to the Things Themselves!’) to the Speculative Realists cited above. But perhaps this endlessly-repeated rhetoric of return and repetition—the repetition of return, the return of repetition—might suggest that such repetition is precisely part of the power of the Real, is somehow itself Real. Rather than the Real being propositional or predicative, then, it might be practical: a repetitive repetition of rupture-through-return. The declaration of a return is also a declaration of a rupture; the return is itself a rupture; the rupture is a return ....

That this may indeed be the case becomes plausible when one turns to explicit reflexions upon the problematic of return and repetition. The art critic Hal Foster has discriminated in his own The return of the real (1996) between two different kinds of repetition: between semi-automatic ‘repetition’ and ‘return’ proper, between administered appropriation and radical re-appropriation. Such a move—first, to place the emphasis upon repetition as such; second, to distinguish between kinds of repetition; third, to suggest how the act of distinction is itself bound up in a process of repetition—is characteristic of many recent studies which acknowledge that ‘the logic of sense’ (Deleuze 1990) must always also be a logic of ‘difference and repetition’ as well (Deleuze 1994). For Jonathan Lear, for example, there are neurotic repetitions and virtue repetitions (see the analysis of courage in Lear 2005: 151-3). In fact, there are what he rather barbarously nominates ‘neurtues’ (a portmanteau word comprised of ‘neurotic’ and ‘virtues’), in which creativity is put in the service of rigid and reactive ends. Repetition for Lear is therefore either the signal of an enduring pathology or the manifestation of something that expresses itself only in and through its repetitions. Notably, the very making of such distinctions is itself an unconfessed third kind of repetition.

Such attention to the processes of self-dissimulating repetition of course necessarily also alerts us to questions of definition, problems of method, and the fraught relation between history and the ahistorical, the logical and the inconsistent. From the perhaps too-rapid recapitulation I have offered above of the recurrent rhetorics of the return of the Real, as well as from the analyses offered by the scholars cited above (and many others I have not), it is clear that a differential consistency may nonetheless be exhibited—that is, expressed if not able to be uttered or stated—in the symptomatic inconsistency of the repetitive demands for a return to the absolute contingency of the Real. But perhaps this repetitive trinity of repetition must therefore be considered the Real Itself? Not the Real or the real as attested to in and by any kind of definition or discourse or discipline in particular, but by the irreducible incapacity for any such not to have to excessively repeat in its ever-failing attempts to speak of the Real or the real. Would this not being able not to stop repeating not then be itself the Really Real, in its unreeling, unrealing repetitions…?

2. Propositions

I don’t believe this is the case. Nor do I believe that such a triple structure must remain forever unformalisable, that is, merely tacit, shown, or implicit as opposed to clearly and distinctly formalised. In this, I follow Jacques Lacan, famous French psychoanalyst and literary freestylist. Lacan at once offers a topology of such a triple repetition in the form of what he calls ‘the Borromean knot’ (technically speaking, it should really be called a ‘Brunnian link’), whereby one can join three (or more) ‘rings of string’ in such a way that, if one cuts one of the three rings, all of them fall apart (see Lacan 2011: 91 where I believe he introduces this figure for the first time in his work, but most of all his treatise on Joyce, Lacan 2005, passim in which the rings play a truly starring role). Let me give a nice visual example here from Mediaeval Latin Christianity, in which the trinity (tri-ni-tas) is decisively united with unity (unitas):

By the way, note how it is the voids in this diagram that are crucial to its function, not simply the allegedly positive elements that are the rings themselves.

For Lacan, the Borromean knot (I will continue to use his terminology here) is one privileged way in which his three categories of the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary (or RSI, which works magnificently in English as an acronym for repetitive strain injury) can be seen to work together. It’s certainly a magnificent topological formalisation of the problem of how three processes—repetitive processes, each repeating in their own way—can nonetheless be articulated such that their mobility and independence can be preserved, but also their interconnections too. Note too, that despite some common misunderstandings of Lacan’s triple division, for example, that the ‘real is prelinguistic’, it is important to underline the absolutely crucial role that language plays in its different way across all divisions. The key for Lacan is the modality of formalisation that enables an inscription of a Real that evades the paradoxes of Aristotelian definition, typology, and placement. But it is also crucial that such a formalisation attempt simultaneously to bind the paradoxes of jouissance, enjoyment, that remain beyond consciousness and the pleasure principle into which they nevertheless leach.

If one wants the Real, then, one had better be quite clear about one’s rational grounds for wanting, finding, expressing it! If one wants the Real in poetry, that is the Real of poetry and only poetry, then one should surely consider how this recurrent triplet of repetition plays itself out in poetry itself. Here, I would like to make a radical suggestion: the palindrome is a paradigm of the Real Through Line; in being so, it cannot be formalised as a triple knot. Why, and why not?

First, what is a palindrome? The Oxford English dictionary defines it thus:

A. n.
1. A word or a sequence of words that reads, letter for letter, the same backwards as forwards.
2. In extended use.
a. Music. A piece of music in which the second half is a retrograde repetition of the first half; the retrograde itself.
b. A number, or a date expressed numerically, that is unchanged when the order of its digits is reversed.
c. Biol. A nucleic acid sequence that is identical to its complementary sequence when each is read in the same (usually 5’–3’) direction.
B. adj.
That is a palindrome; esp. that reads, letter for letter, the same backwards as forwards.                                                                                               

I believe that the word ‘palindrome’ was coined by none other than William Shakespeare’s greatest contemporary and rival, the inimitable Ben Jonson, in the early 17th century. I remind the reader that this is precisely conterminous with the modern emergence of the now ubiquitous discourses of the return to the real I have already analysed above—an historical link which, if in the current context seems merely suggestive, may well be susceptible to more fulsome demonstration. Here, I limit myself merely to a sequence of quotations and brief remarks about the emergence of the signifier ‘palindrome’ itself.

Here is an extract from Jonson’s ‘An execration upon Vulcan’, in which the word appears. The poem was written in 1623 (although published only posthumously): the year of Shakespeare’s First Folio, as well as the year in which Jonson’s great library was destroyed by fire. Jonson’s imaginative riposte is therefore an attack upon the crippled smith deity who is, literarily speaking of course, ultimately responsible for his loss:

…. then why this Fire? Or find
   A Cause before; or leave me one behind.
Had I compil'd from Amadis de Gaule,
   Th' Esplandians, Arthur's, Palmerins, and all
The learned Library of Don Quixote;
   And so some goodlier Monster had begot,
Or spun out Riddles, and weav'd fitty Tomes
   Of Logogriphes, and curious Palindromes,
Or pomp'd for those hard Trifles Anagrams,
   Or Eteostichs, or those finer Flams
Of Eggs, and Halberds, Cradles, and a Hearse,
   A pair of Scisars, and a Comb in Verse;
Acrostichs, and Telestichs, on jump Names,
   Thou then hadst had some colour for thy Flames,
On such my serious Follies; But, thou'lt say,
   There were some Pieces of as base allay,
And as false stamp there; parcels of a Play,
   Fitter to see the Fire-light, than the day…

Jonson repurposed the term for modern English from ‘the Hellenistic Greek παλίνδρομος running back again < ancient Greek πάλιν back (see palinodia n. + -δρομος running (see -drome comb. form)’. Significantly, Greek itself doesn’t use palindrome for palindromes: it deploys καρκινικὴ επιγραφή, ‘crab writing’, instead. Note therefore how the phenomenon significantly predates its name. Indeed, palindromes have been found all over the world, across time. Note, too, how the term emerges for Jonson as one amongst other derisory literary ingenuities: Logographs, Anagrams, Eteostics (that is, chronograms), Acrostics, and so on, the very writing of which, as Jonson’s own ironic conceit would have it, may well have given Vulcan cause to set the fire.

Why are such games figured as so risible, even noxious, by Jonson? Because they are of ‘base allay’ and ‘false stamp’, follies and frivolities of a language that has lost its substance and is now merely enjoying itself with itself. As such, a palindrome has neither sense, nor reference, nor tradition, nor naturalness about it: it is a perversity of language. Such a moralising figuration of the import of the palindrome is in fact dominant in almost all accounts of the phenomenon; and, for the most part, is proposed without Jonson’s own magisterial self-irony. As the Princeton companion to mathematics acerbically remarks: ‘the definition of “palindromic” is extremely unnatural. If you know that a number is palindromic, what you know is less a feature of the number itself and more a feature of the particular way that, for accidental historical reasons, we choose to represent it. In particular, the property depends on our choice of the number 10 as our base. For example, if we write 131 in base 3, then it becomes 11212, which is no longer the same when written backwards. By contrast, a prime number is prime however you write it’ (Gower 2008: 71). But this vaguely risible nature of the palindrome—at once an entirely artificial constraint and too-bound to a particular form of representation—is also part of its power. Underlining the syntagm ‘extremely unnatural’ is therefore perhaps a first approach to one key trait of the Real. After all, how can something so patently risible prove to have such abiding, irritating appeal, such that its appeal must be invoked even if it’s in order to be dismissed? Moreover, how is it that the ‘palindrome’ recurrently seems to take up its peculiar (lack of) appeal in an absolutely extraordinary slew of heterogeneous fields, from the literary through the microbiological to the mathematical?

It is my contention here that this is because palindromes simultaneously operate upon and expose the most extreme tension between:

1. Real & Representation
2. Letters & Words
3. Semanticisation & Syntacticisation
4. Genesis & Structure
5. Practice & Formalisation
6. Time & Eternality
7. Poetry & Prose
8. Language & its Other

Let me briefly expand on these points by turn.

  1. A palindrome shows (that there is) something irrelevantly essential about this form of representation itself. It may therefore be redefined as a real feature of that form of representation, and not simply a contingency of this or that representation vis-à-vis some external real. Why is this significant? Because this very representation-specific nature of the feature exposed by the palindrome says something about the uniqueness of that form of representation. What status does such a real feature of representation exposed by the palindrome have? The irrelevantly essential it incarnates. This, indicatively, does not hold for most formal constraints, which are susceptible to translinguistic application: the sonnet, for example, or even many of the oulipean innovations.
  2. The letters of a palindrome must literally (is this one of the only literally literal uses of ‘literally’ that remains possible today?) form a reversible circuit; so too the words. But the words can only be created through the letters; the letters cannot even pretend to make sense without making words. But to bring letters and words together in this way simultaneously exposes their essential dehiscence: they do not represent each other, they are both entirely artificial, they undermine the other with which they are continuous. There are many more words possible than the letters which compose them; there are many more potential combinations of letters than there are words. Yet even if they utilised the same script—say, Roman—different languages have different words and therefore different frequencies of letters that compose them. Palindromes actualise a real relation between the frequency of letters and the composition of words in a particular language. Another kind of real of the particular natural language that any particular palindrome is written in thereby emerges as such. This is an Epicurean-Lucretian point.
  3. A palindrome also exposes the relation between the semantics and syntax of a given language—or, more precisely, between the semanticisation and syntactisation of a language. What I mean by this is that a palindrome shows meaning straining to be made as its material conditions start to buck against meaning by drawing attention to their materiality; in doing so, semantics and syntax start too to split. Anybody attempting to write a palindrome must know that any meaning one essays to create is constantly being undermined by the impossibility of meshing it with the syntax afforded by the algorithm of reversibility that defines and governs a palindrome. In fact, two principles of language must simultaneously come together as they come apart: the regularising irregularity of a grammar contends with the irregular regularity of literal dispositions.
  4. The general structures of a language (its words and letters, its syntax and semantics, etc.) make possible, as they radically interfere with the genesis of the palindrome itself. Every language admits different palindromes, and excludes those of other languages—for the most part. To imagine a palindrome that ‘makes sense’ in, say, both English and Sanskrit, or French and German—that would therefore be something. But the point here is that the contingent historical development of a language (its diachronic lineage) comes into conflict with its structure (its synchronic systematicity); the effaced history of the becoming-language of certain marks or sounds intrudes as an offence against a language’s straining towards systematic closure.
  5. The practice of writing can no longer take place without transforming itself under the condition of this constraint of formalisation: here the work of the Oulipo group, notably Georges Perec, is of the highest pertinence (see inter alia Becker 2012; Montfrans 1999; Queneau 2007; Reggiani 1999). The key point here is that the composition of a palindrome must happen through a splitting of the practice of writing: backwards and forwards at once. Any justification for the inherited practices of writing therefore becomes patent and contingent, itself in need of further justifications, and any new justifications therefore must have a different status than that of simple actuality. Writing doesn’t just happen, say, left to right, beginning to end, but simultaneously at beginning and end, directed towards a virtual centre which may or may not keep shifting as the ends essay to come together.
  6. Inherited relations between time and eternality in writing become reorganised by the palindromic form. In Western scripts at least, one reads from left to right, from top to bottom; in Middle-Eastern scripts, one reads from right to left. But this means that the palindrome at once unfolds in time, an irreversible time, and with a particular spatial deployment; but the essence of the palindrome precisely doesn’t. A palindrome is precisely not temporal in this way, even if we only come to discover its structure in time. Moreover, one can—nay, must—read backwards against whatever the standard mode of reading is in that language. The spacing of these condition-divisions of language is exposed as other than yet crucial to its temporal unfolding.
  7. Is a palindrome poetry or prose? I would say that it is impossible to say; it is a form that puts the distinction into question. A palindrome is a line of flight from the striations of poetry and prose. On the one hand, the palindrome brings the tensions within a language to their height, as I have already demonstrated. As such, the palindrome—not coincidentally, named in a poem by Jonson—provides a kind of epitome of constrained inventiveness and pure play often allegedly held to be characteristic of poieisis. On the other hand, the key to a palindrome is in the letters and words themselves, a pure line whose breaks are therefore meaningless as such to its definition, or, rather, intercalate blanks which may not count as rupturing the line. (In passing: do the blanks ruin any palindrome that isn’t metronymically void, so to speak?) This, then, is prose.
  8. The other of a language—its ‘Real’—is found within that language itself, as Giorgio Agamben writes (Agamben 1999: 27-38). It is not simply ‘outside’ language. But the palindrome exposes (as I have again already demonstrated) precisely this Real, this Real of a—not even some or all—language. This is not simply a repetition of point 1 above: rather than an irrelevantly essential real feature of this particular language, this point bears on the exposure of the outer limit of the language itself, the ‘line’ it cannot cross and still remain language.

There is obviously much more to be said about the palindrome, but I no longer have the space or will to say it here. Suffice it to conclude with this: I am not arguing that the palindrome is the Real, or the only Real, or the reall-est Real, or the best or most satisfying Real. On the contrary, I am well aware that the palindrome is an entirely marginal and minor formal para-literary game. Yet, for all this, it seems to be to one of the only modalities of language that conform strictly to the rigours proposed by the phrase ‘The Real Through Line’. It does this by taking language itself as its own object, that is, truly immanently; it does this literally, as a palindrome is a line; and it does this pragmatically, that is, not simply by discoursing about it. Since we cannot not go through language, and since language does not tie in any direct way to the real, and since any of the many different operations upon language have, as we saw above, their own irreparable difficulties about justifying their real without inducing a repetition that is in excess of their declarative claims, the palindrome’s privilege in this regard derives from this triplet of immanence, literality, and pragmatism.

For reasons I have been at pains to elucidate, there can be no possible definition of the Real that does not fall under suspicion. But this does not necessarily mean that one cannot inscribe something of the Real, even if it is negatively, apophatically, as in negative theology, or, as here, by the very embodiment of something that cannot be other than it is without failing its own constitutive constraints, at the moment that those constraints are tied directly to the singularity of its own material (‘language’). In other words, each palindrome might best be considered a fragment of the Real. In contradistinction to the repetitive claims for the ‘return of the real’ which I began by analysing—with their symptomatic imbrication of Trinitarian process—the palindrome is much more like that Borgesian labyrinth that is a single straight line, formal, bounded and dimensional yet immanent and infinite, which cuts transversally through the Gordian—or rather Borromean—knot of declarative return. A palindrome is absolutely untranslatable (e.g. letters themselves are no longer just letters as conditions of words, but integral to the composition as such). It bespeaks the pure singularity of a language, yet is not really that language (because a palindrome’s artifice means that something other than sense or reference is at stake). We witness the exposition of the enigma of deixis as immanence: a palindrome exposes the place of its own taking-place. A palindrome transforms the fragment of the real of language that it incarnates and exposes: its constraints being entirely immanent to that language, in incarnating a fragment of these, it introduces as it embodies an incalculable limit of that language. To use Lacan’s own terms (Lacan 2005: 118), if in a very different context: the straight line that is a palindrome turns the false hole (or Real) of the triple rings of repetition into a true hole (or Real).


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