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The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design

by Vilém Flusser, trans Anthony Matthews, Intro Martin Pawley
Reaktion Books, London. 1999. 126 pp.
ISBN 1 86189 055 9

Towards a Philosophy of Photography,

by Vilém Flusser, trans Anthony Matthews, intro Hubertus Von Amelunxen 
Reaktion Books, London. 2000. 94pp.
ISBN 1 86189 076 1

by Vilém Flusser, ed and intro Andreas Str×hl, trans Erik Eisel
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis. 2002. 229pp.
ISBN 0 8166 3564 1

The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism

by Vilém Flusser, trans Kenneth Kronenberg, ed and intro Anke K Finger,
University of Illinois Press, Urbana. 2003. 107pp.
ISBN 0 252 02817 1

Reviewed by Sean Cubitt, Screen and Media Studies, University of Waikato, Private Bag 3105, Hamilton, New Zealand

Imagine Walter Benjamin's essays of the 1930s had only just become available, or that Marshall McLuhan had died in obscurity but was now for the first time appearing in dribs and drabs. That is the significance of the translations of Flusser that have appeared in English in the last five years. Very soon, our students will no longer accept that we are unfamiliar with Flusser, as once we pilloried an older generation for their ignorance of Barthes and Eco. 'There are the Alps', Basil Bunting once said of the Cantos, 'You will have to go a long way round if you want to avoid them'. Thus too Flusser, one of the most profound thinkers of technology and communication in the 20th century.

'The essay is not merely the articulation of a thought, but of a thought as a point of departure for committed existence . . .  it transforms its topic into an enigma. It implicates itself in the topic and in its reader. This is what makes it attractive' (Writings 194). By this, or pretty much any other definition, Flusser is an essayist, a writer of short, provocative, probing, but also lucid, memorable and elegant works. Four books of his writings have appeared in English, of which only Towards a Philosophy of Photography is more than a collection of essays, but even that only runs to a slender 94 pages. (According to Free Association Press, the publishers of another collection, the project to translate From Subject to Project: Becoming Human was never realised, despite the fact that it appears in several lists of Flusser's translated work). A small number of isolated pieces have been collected in anthologies or published online. Otherwise Flusser has yet to have a major impact on the English-speaking world, though there are increasing signs that his genial, challenging mixture of information theory, phenomenology and social philosophy will become a standard reference in the years ahead, as the dominance of French post-structuralism gives way to a more catholic range of influences.

Flusser was born in 1920. In 1939, at the age of 19, he fled his native Prague, first to London, where he came across the work of Wittgenstein and Russell's mathematical philosophy. Thence to Brazil, where he worked in engineering, studying Husserl and the philosophy of language in his spare time. In 1959 he took up his first academic post, and began publishing philosophical essays in the Sao Paolo daily Folho de S?. This tradition of working in public, so significant to European intellectuals like Barthes and Eco, and so sadly lacking in the UK and USA, perhaps helps explain the clarity and dialogic quality of his writing, a conversational tone inviting agreement but also challenge and discussion. Early (and thus far untranslated) Portuguese texts include books on language and reality, and on the history of the Devil ('The devil and progress and history are synonyms', Writings xxiii). After the 1964 coup, Flusser began publishing more work in German, in Merkur and the Frankf?ter Allgemeine. In 1972 he moved to France and settled quietly in Provence. In 1983, Towards a Philosophy of Photography appeared in German, to immediate applause. Other works followed, mostly so far untranslated. In 1991 he died in a car crash after giving a lecture in his native Prague. An archive of 2,500 manuscripts is held at the Cologne Academy of Fine Arts <flusser@khm.de>

Never one for extensive footnotes, Flusser was clearly widely and deeply read. Already in the 1980s, he is writing of the technical image in ways that prefigure (and frequently go boldly beyond) the nineties' discourse of cyberspace. Plying an independent course between semiotics and informatics, he develops a concept of code which reveals the two theories to one another in ways that proved intractable to contemporaries like Anthony Wilden (REF: Wilden, Anthony (1972), System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange, Tavistock, London). Unimpressed by Saussure, Flusser was free of the internal structures of signifiers and signifieds that obsessed semioticians in the 1970s (and which met a nihilistic impasse in the work of Baudrillard). Instead he is able to concentrate on the rule-governed structures and the probabilistic measure of information content in systems like photography and later in computer code. In one sense Flusser can be distinguished from Baudrillard in this matter of code. Baudrillard sees code as self-replicating rule-structure. Flusser sees a historical performativity of code, in Judith Butler's sense of the power that a statement has, when made in the correct context ("I pronounce you man and wife"), to change real relations. Thus his famous definition of a photograph: 'It is an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, an image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion' (Photography, 76). Codes embedded in the apparatus - photographic or more generally technical - derive from human usage new combinations to assimilate into the apparatus itself. Photographers are functionaries of an apparatus which, if analysis is extended back far enough, reaches into capital, corporations, politics and economics, a nested series of black boxes each governed by an elite of functionaries who nonetheless are prisoners of their own apparatus.

Yet it is also typical of Flusser to continue that 'It is consequently the task of a philosophy of photography to expose this struggle between human being and apparatuses in the field of photography and to reflect on a possible solution to the conflict' (Photography, 75). The image code, he argues, has taken over from the linear code of writing and logic, of causality. In this sense it is post-historical. Flusser's response leads him out of being an interesting but sidelined precursor to postmodernism. It addresses the question of freedom. In linear thinking, only the complexity of overdetermination allows anyone to be free: we act as if we were not conditioned because the causalities operating on us are complex beyond our understanding. But in the spatial ('surface') logic of the image, everything is based on chance, and any order is circumscribed by entropy which subsumes every improbability into probability. In such a realm of existential absurdity, where could freedom lie? Flusser argues that photographers, especially experimental photographers -and in Leonardo we can surely understand this to include all of us working in the field between science, art and technology -are the key. Those who play in and with the terms image, apparatus, program and information in the effort to produce the unexpected are playing against the camera, and against all apparatuses bedded in it. That is the meaning of freedom in the photographic universe.

Like many who grew up with structural Marxism, the word 'freedom' has for me a hollow ring: the battlecry of hypocritical politicians, who will kill for freedom but will not pay a buck for justice, equality or peace. The argument is most persuasive perhaps in the essays on migration and nomadism collected in The Freedom of the Migrant
. While I respect the criticism that migration is unfree when forced, and freest when it is undertaken by privileged corporate functionaries and professional elites, nonetheless Flusser's arguments ring true. The migrant, willing or not, is forced out into a void, where meaning can no longer arise from habit or habitus. The bewildering moment can be handled in one of a number of ways. The migrant can cling to the home culture as an idealised vision - the culture of the expatriate. Or she can use the wrench into disorientation to claim freedom from the past and a new, ironic gaze upon both the home culture and the new place where she arrives. Flusser does not say, but it is I think legitimate to argue, that this 'freedom from' is that patrician, aristocratic view from the mountain tops espoused by Nietzsche and Bataille. What Flusser does say is that 'freedom from' is only half a freedom, and as such unfree. What remains is for the migrant to seize the ironic moment of liberty and commit herself to using it in the context of the culture where she lands. Only in that engagement with change, that grasping of responsibility, does the migrant achieve her freedom.

Lurking under this philosophical argument is a robust theory of information:  'the creation of new information depends on the synthesis of prior information. Such a synthesis consists in an exchange of information . . .  One can therefore speak of creation as a dialogic process, in which either an internal or an external dialogue takes place' (Migrant, 86). The word dialogue, like much of his vocabulary, has a special set of connotations (the photography book has a fascinating glossary of some of his key terms). It stands over against discourse, which is one-way, and dictatorial (recall Flusser's biography: in pre-war Czechoslovakia and in Brazil, he had reason to know about dictators). Dictatorship is stable, homeostatic in informational terms, but its stability depends on the reduction of information in the system, so that its stasis masks a real entropy. By the same token, however, the migrant's lot is unstable. 'The dialogic spirit that characterises exile may not be one of mutual recognition; it is mostly polemical and even murderous' (Migrant, 87). Nonetheless, even these battles are creative, because whatever the form of the dialogue, it cannot but bring something alien and unpredicted into the normal life of the culture. Without wishing to be rude to my hosts, transcribing these words during a visit to Australia, smirched by the ongoing shame of its handling of the Tampa refugees, feels particularly potent.

The line of thought pursued through the question of freedom in an informatic system leads Flusser to some radical positions. The metaphor of computer networks provides the basis for considering human beings as accretions of information flow, nodes in the net (the peculiar translation 'outpouchings' is probably the German 'ausbeulen', swollen from inner pressure): 'The denser the outpouching, the more concretely and the more numerous the potentials that have become realized within it. What at one time was called the "self"  or "I" is just such a realization of potentials, in the same way as is what was once called an "object" or "thing". It is simply that such outpouchings result from a concentration of a networked dispersion. What this means is that potentials gather together to be realized. I am whatever I am because a few dispersed potentials concentrated together. And the more densely they concentrate, the more realized I am.  . . .  We are fleeting potentials that approach one another for our mutual realization' (Migrant, 51). Or, as we have seen, for mutual antagonism, but nonetheless as accumulations of potential whose origins lie not in some founding individual self, but in the power of network flows to store  without hoarding, and to transmit without losing, in processes of mutual interaction and change.

The level of abstraction in such technical writings is not typical. Much of Flusser's most original work, as in the essays on design collected in The Shape of Things, start from mundane issues like the click of the typewriter. In many ways the most sheerly delightful of the four titles so far published in English, the essays are playful, but full of sharp insights. An etymological game on the meaning of the Latin materia (and its Spanish cognate madera) allows him to suggest that the 'matter' is best translated, first as wood - the unformed woodpile in a carpenter's shop - and then as 'stuff': matter is what gets stuffed into forms (there is another play on the French farce over which we can perhaps draw a polite veil). This little game introduces a very serious argument about the inappropriateness of the term 'immaterial' and the laxity with which digital culture uses the word 'inform'. In a joyful set of surprising turns, Flusser concludes that the immaterial is precisely form, that which allows the unformed stuff of the world -  material - to appear. The book is full of elegantly translated gems: ''One cannot at the same time be "good in oneself" and "good for something': one has to make a choice to be either a saint or a designer' (Shape, 32). Lurking behind the mischievous argumentation of this essay (on war and design) is, I suspect, the untranslated book on the Devil - and a razor-sharp joke about the potential for evil of the philosophy of good design when taken as axiomatic. The essay on carpets ('The carpet weaver does not aim to reveal what he has done but to conceal it', Shape, 97) concludes 'Carpets are hung on walls so as to conceal cracks in the wall. This is not the worst way to describe the situation of culture today' (Shape, 98). The essay on pots moves from an epistemological conundrum to a theological apocalypse in a series of easy, all too fatally comprehensible steps. Each premise of ordinary discourse about design is tested, tasted, chewed over and returned in often gruesome but always fascinating shapes.

As far as it is possible with such an eclectic writer, the volume of Writings collected by Andreas Str×hl gives a good overview. Rather like Peirce , or Benjamin, Flusser is not a systematic thinker, indeed in many ways his thinking debars the possibility of a philosophical system like Kant's or Hegel's. The essays' engagement with current issues often subordinates the desire for consistency to the need to wake readers up and demand that we too think as hard as we can about the world we inhabit. One of the major texts, echoing through a number of others, is the essay 'Line and Surface', in which Flusser argues that the linear and causal model of writing, which defined history as distinct from image-based pre-history, is challenged by the arrival of a mythic, spatialising image, just at that moment when universal literacy seemed ready to democratise historical consciousness. But the new image is not the same as the old - there is no chance that 'illiteracy will be restored' (Writings, 67). Instead we have to understand the technical image as a new form. Where prehistoric images attempted a magical translation of the world, the new images process pre-existing linear texts. Our images (and their apparatuses) are created from scientific formulae, philosophical arguments, historical narratives. But they process them into second-order images, if anything even more removed from the world than the texts they supplant. One thinks here of Feynman diagrams or Penrose tiles - images that visualise complex multidimensional math. These 'post-historical' images neither take us to Fukuyama's triumphant neo-liberalism, nor to McLuhan's pre-literate global village but to a zone where the ethics of criticism become indistinguishable from the crisis of freedom and the new modes of politics that ensue.

In his root and branch critique of habit ('More than anything, patriotism is a symptom of an aesthetic disease', Writings, 101) and his demands for an ethical criticism, Flusser sets a more radical agenda than the celebratory McLuhan or the defeatist Baudrillard. If images now process texts, then writing can become the production of pre-texts for the apparatus of domination. Or it can become 'a critique of techno-imagination(which means an unmasking of the ideologies hiding behind a technological progress that has become autonomous of human decisions)' (Writings, 69). Though we are condemned to emerge blinking into the light of post-history, where the long narratives of culture are replaced by the inexorable workings of the second law of thermodynamics, still we emerge, and in the unfamiliar light, have a choice to make. In fact, one could argue, against Flusser, that for precisely that reason we are still historical beings, still making our world, if we do not choose simply to accept it. An entirely understandable rejection of Marxism leaves Flusser without some strategic elements of a philosophy of the future: the shift from tools to software does not, despite his arguments to the contrary, remove power from owners to functionaries (Writings, 87). It does alter social relations, but not to the extent that he imagines. There are, then , reasons to read Flusser carefully, critically, but that is exactly what he asks us to do. The very elegance of his essayistic style is built of particles of argument that are also, to take up another of his metaphors, waves of history, waves whose definition becomes clearer as they recede, particles whose involutions dissipate across wider and wider fabrics of interaction as they move away from us into the past. So we can see with some greater clarity phenomena that were, scarcely a decade ago - the years before the web and ubiquitous mobile media - more tendencies than actualities.

"Habent fata libelli" he notes in an essay on Kafka and interpretation: books have their own destinies, which Flusser reads as meaning that they have to find their addressees in order to be realised. With luck, these first translations will help more English-speaking readers adopt Flusser's method of making the familiar strange, and pondering the potentials that are released from the bonds of habit by that sudden realisation. At worst, there will be a flurry of doctoral theses asserting true and correct interpretations. Which would be entirely out of sympathy with this most dialogical of modern thinkers.



Updated 1st April 2004

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