Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) has long been known and celebrated in Europe and Brazil primarily as a media theorist. Only recently have other facets of his accomplishments come to light, clearly establishing Flusser as a key thinker.
An accessible and thorough introduction to Flusser’s thought, this book reveals his engagement with a wide array of disciplines, from communication studies, posthuman philosophy, media studies, and history to art and art history, migrant studies, anthropology, and film studies. The first to connect Flusser’s entire oeuvre, this volume shows how his works on media theory are just one part of a greater mosaic of writings that bring to the fore cultural and cognitive changes concerning all of us in the twenty-first century.
A theorist deeply influenced by his experiences as a privileged citizen of Prague, a Jew pursued by the Nazis, a European emigrant, a Brazilian immigrant, and a survivor keenly interested and invested in history and memory, Vilém Flusser was an outsider in a staunchly hierarchical and disciplined academic world.
If you lie in wait for a word at the moment it comes out of the mouth, try to catch it, to chew it before it is spit out (and that would actually be to grasp the gesture of speaking), you notice that you are always a second too late.
The works currently on display have resulted from a hitherto frustrated attempt to catch the discourse right at the moment of its birth. My concern is with capturing the transfer of the instant living experience, full of empirical vigour, onto the symbol imbued with memorability and relative eternity.
Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) is currently best-known as a theorist of new media, a term he would have defined as ‘communication technology since photography’. However, he most often described himself as a writer and his project as a comprehensive theory of human communication, terms that are considerably more helpful in grasping his sense of art as movement, as a particular expression of human consciousness and not as a set of objects.
A native of Prague, Flusser emigrated to Brazil in 1940, then returned to live in Europe in 1972. When his first book, Língua e Realidade (Language and Reality) was published in Brazil in 1963, his main focus was on the criticism of literature. But he wrote criticism of specific art exhibitions, both in Brazil and later, after he returned to Europe. He participated in the planning and promotion of the São Paulo Bienale, and later contributed to the American art journals Artforum International and Leonardo.3 A reader of his many books and articles on an eclectic range of subjects will nonetheless be puzzled by references to art that sometimes dismiss, sometimes prescribe, and sometimes embrace art as tantamount to creativity itself, equivalent to what we think of as human.4 There is no comprehensive theory. The closest equivalent is a description of artistic gesture, a pattern of movement associated with a particular kind of consciousness. But in this way, art does figure in a very comprehensive theory, for Flusser’s theory of gesture proposes nothing less than a new way of defining and valuing the way human beings make and share meaning.
The foregoing remarks are vulnerable to the charge of anachronism, for they draw on an idea of gesture that seems unlikely to have figured in the direct exchange between Flusser and Schendel, that is, in the actual, face-to-face conversations that took place on the terrace of the Flussers’ apartment in São Paulo between the 1950s and early 1970s. Among the few sources of information about the exchange is the short essay ‘Mira Schendel’ that is part of Flusser’s autobiography, Bodenlos [rootless or foundationless] and is reproduced here as an appendix.5 Although Bodenlos was not actually published until 1992, it was written in the early 1970s, when Flusser was literally and figuratively between Brazil and Europe, reflecting on the immediate past in anticipation of imminent change. The text of ‘Mira Schendel’, which appears in the section titled ‘Dialogues’, describes an emotionally turbulent yet sturdy friendship.6 He assures us that Schendel always controlled the content of the conversations, and that the topic was always her work. To take him at his word, then, it was a situation in which he was obliged to think from her point of view, to enter into the intensity, the emotional volatility, the uncompromising materiality of her way of being in the world. He says that relationship taxed his patience; it would seem it taxed her patience as well. For although she had a very high regard for at least one earlier statement he had written about her work,7 what she read in the manuscript of the text in Bodenlos made her angry: the time of frequent and intense discussion between them had largely ended, even before Flusser and his wife left Brazil.8
Schendel continued, nevertheless, to be a force in Flusser’s thinking. The two quotations reproduced above, both very difficult to date with any certainty, provide evidence of a shared interest in a very subtle, very ephemeral event, in ‘catching’ something intangible – a thought, an idea – long enough to make its meaning available to others. ‘Catch’ – the same verb in both quotations – seems to involve a physical, embodied movement, returning again to the idea of a gesture, a physical movement, as distinct from an object. There is no point in asking which of the two thoughts came first, or which ‘caused’ the other: Flusser categorised his exchange with Schendel as a dialogue, a term he consistently defined, first, as a free, interested exchange of information between two different memories, and, second, as the one and only way human beings can create something genuinely new. Just by putting the statement about Schendel in the ‘Dialogues’ section of the book, he was ascribing a very high value to what had transpired between them. And he went on to be more specific: ‘For Mira, I am a genuine critic’, he wrote. ‘I influence her work. And she presents me with genuine issues that need to be thought and worked through.’9
Schendel’s impact on Flusser cannot be definitively ‘proven’. Among other reasons, he notoriously failed to acknowledge sources in his published texts. But Schendel raised ‘genuine issues’, and the loss of direct contact in itself would not have resolved them. In any case, by heuristically supposing Schendel to have been ‘there’, present in his thinking, Flusser’s widely dispersed, even apparently contradictory references to art seem to coalesce and to suggest the scope of the demands Schendel’s project made on his theory.
Traditional and technical images
Schendel and Flusser were only a year apart in age. For both, German had been the language – or one of the languages – of childhood, and Judaism had been a factor in their earliest religious experience, although Schendel was educated in Catholic schools. Both had been the object of religious persecution, and after emigrating to Brazil, in 1940 and 1949, respectively, they shared the status of ‘expellees’. Flusser used the term in his well-known essay, ‘Exile and Creativity’ to describe people in a completely unfamiliar situation, constantly confronted with such vast quantities of new information as to have to filter and shape it creatively in order to survive.10 Both expellees had had to abruptly abandon their formal education, and although both investigated the possibility of going back to earn formal qualifications, both decided against it, preferring to pursue a broad range of studies independently, guided by immediate interests, needs and opportunities. Among these was a keen awareness of language itself.
They were hardly alone. Abruptly plunged as they were into a completely new culture, they surely felt the force of language with exceptional intensity. But a heightened consciousness of language was noticeable across diverse disciplines and institutional contexts at that moment, noticeable enough to acquire the name the linguistic turn, the title of an influential collection of philosophical essays published in 1967.11 The date falls comfortably within the timespan of conversations with Schendel on the Flussers’ terrace in São Paolo, and there are grounds for supposing some resonance with the heightened awareness of language that was felt at that particular moment in art as well as philosophy, in Europe and the United States. And yet Flusser’s dialogue with Schendel, grounded in a quite extensive shared cultural – and arguably especially religious – memory, seems to have facilitated a radical rethinking of the way concepts relate to art.
Flusser was relatively new to art criticism when he met Schendel. As he had long since adopted phenomenology as his main philosophical method, however, he may well have tried, in keeping with the philosopher Edmund Husserl’s epoché, or reduction, to ‘bracket out’ whatever assumptions he brought to the table regarding the relationship of image to text. Above all, he may have felt philosophically obligated not to try to attempt any causal ‘explanation’ of Schendel’s work. The project would rather be to enter into Schendel’s position, to gain some insight into the challenges she faced by seeking parallels between his practice as a writer and hers as a maker. It would have raised the relationship between text and image as a central issue. And here, writer and artist did have some common ground. As Geraldo de Souza Diaz points out in his excellent monograph on Schendel, published in 2000:
Many artists were integrating writing into their images in the 1960s, if in most cases merely as a formal element. But Schendel’s interest in the relationship between writing and images can be satisfactorily explained on religious grounds, for from childhood she had been familiar with the ban on images as well as the language mysticism that underpins the Jewish concept of God.12
Flusser clearly shared Schendel’s familiarity with these aspects of Jewish thought, for the ban on images figures prominently in his subsequent writing. In fact, he seems never to have seriously doubted that writing is fiercely and intractably antagonistic toward images. Given a phenomenological understanding of the relationship of consciousness to its objects, this intractable antagonism became the basis for his history of communications media. In this view, writing always sought to dominate images – or more exactly, writing consciousness tried to dominate image consciousness. It took a long time: ‘Only in the eighteenth century, after a three-thousand-year struggle, did texts succeed in pushing images, with their magic and myth, into such corners as museums and the unconscious.’13 But by the time of Flusser’s own writing, in the 1980s, the tables were again turning not exactly back to previous conditions but definitely against writing.
For whereas writing is capable of channelling, controlling the meaning of traditional images such as drawing and painting, it cannot control the meanings of images produced by cameras, video recorders and synthesizers. This is the difference Flusser makes between traditional and technical images. Cameras, sound recorders and synthesizers – in his word, ‘apparatuses’ – can penetrate past what human beings can actually see or hear or touch. They reach in to a level at which the world is a mass of whirling particles, meaningless in itself. The apparatus can confer a meaning. Most technical images are still made and used as if they were traditional (in particular, photographs are still ordinarily understood and used as if they were paintings or drawings). But technical images potentially store more information, manipulate and distribute it far faster and more efficiently than linear, alphanumeric text ever could. Flusser’s writing is not rich in specific examples, but it seems useful to think of images that consolidate scientific data visually, assigning visual qualities – shape, scale, colour – to, say, measurements of speed or temperature, creating an image from information that no one could possibly ‘see’.
The theory of technical images was elaborated after direct dialogue with Schendel had ended. And yet the idea seems to be there in outline form already in the early 1970s, in the short essay ‘Mira Schendel’, where it is implied that her images are no longer ‘traditional’:
Traditionally, thinking goes something like this: I encounter something concrete. I form an image of this concrete thing (I ‘imagine’ it), so as to acquaint myself with it. And then I translate my image into a concept, so as to understand the concrete thing and be able to handle it. Historically, the phase of imagining is the mythical-magical one, and the phase of understanding is the epistemological-technical one. (In fact this briefly describes the structure of Western civilisation.) With Mira, it comes to a qualitative reversal. She starts from the concept and tries to imagine it. She uses her imaginative powers to make the world of ideas concrete, rather that to grasp the world of concrete things (for this world slips through our fingers). One aspect of the contemporary world of ideas is that it has become unimaginable. This has a great deal to do with our alienation: we cannot imagine what our ideas (for example, our scientific ideas) mean. A new kind of imaginary power is required to do it, and Mira mobilises this new power for us … To make a concept into an image is to turn what is diachronic into something synchronic, to collapse a process. Mira’s works, which make concepts imaginable, are the first steps toward a revolution in human existence.14
It also seems clear that Mira did not make what Flusser termed, in retrospect, ‘technical images’, for Flusser defined them as images made by an apparatus. Still, he writes that her images reverse the ‘traditional’ relationship of images to texts. As he describes it, her ‘things’ (more on the difficulty with the designation ‘work’ below) are not available to theorisation or explanation: in some sense, they already are theory. In fact, Flusser takes considerable care to avoid the presumption of explaining her work. He doubles up his discussion, so that two perspectives, roughly ‘his’ and ‘hers’, appear: the description of the content of their verbal dialogue might be considered ‘his’, and the close visual descriptions of the two pieces, one Graphic Object and one Notebook, are ‘hers’. The text closes with a passage that positions Schendel’s project roughly in parallel to his own, both being responses to a shared contemporary situation. Her ‘voice’ is her work.
Flusser is not alone among media theorists in associating writing with a particular form of consciousness, or in projecting a culture after writing, a time when writing becomes a rather esoteric skill, if not altogether extinct. He does appear to be unique in his sense of antagonism between writing consciousness (he calls it ‘historical’ consciousness) and image-based consciousness. Nor is it a conflict that has been resolved in the past. On the contrary, he experiences it as a regular feature of his own – and presumably others’ – writing. An idea comes in the form of an image.15 In order to write the idea down, he must attack it, shattering it into word-scaled pieces, forcing it to follow the grammatical and orthographic rules of a specific language. His description of Schendel’s procedure suggests something like the reverse, only in some ways also a move forward. He reaches a concept by writing it; she goes on to turn a concept to a new kind of image.
Rather than the conventional relationship between artist and writer, then, in which the writer writes about and explains the artist’s work, Flusser suggests a sense in which the image might supersede writing, in which the artist might imagine the writer’s idea, and in which writing could disappear.16
Art and information
In the Bodenlos article, Flusser acknowledges Schendel as a great artist. Yet the analysis that follows makes no particular reference to art. With certain notable exceptions to be discussed below, when Flusser discusses art in his writing, he invariably does so from the ‘outside’, from the position of a critic, observing, listening, and receiving. Perhaps particularly in the books published in the 1980s, he writes as someone who sees art as one kind of message, that is, as information. In broad outline, the theory he advances defines information in terms of probability and improbability: the more improbable a given event or object is, the more informative. In this context, human being are engaged in a kind of permanent struggle against the forces of entropy, the overall tendency of the world to gradually lose information, so that everything becomes more and more probable, predictable. The tendency to resist entropy, negentropy, is another word for creativity. Nature created the world – very slowly – and continues to create at the rate improbable events occur, rarely and randomly. But human beings are capable of creating – which is to say of generating new information – much more quickly and deliberately.17 They can do it under one simple, but absolute condition: there must be dialogue. New information comes exclusively from dialogue, that is, from a free exchange of information between two memories. The two memories may be aspects of a single mind – a possibility that largely accounts for the ‘lonely genius’ model of creativity. There may also be a dialogue between an organic, human memory and an artificial one, such as a library or archive or memory stored on a server. But the really exciting form of creativity involves an exchange between two human memories – provided these are free and equal rather than forced or predetermined. His concern for the immediate future is that in our society, reliant as it is on forms of communication that are increasingly automated, genuine dialogue is becoming close to impossible: a society that does not generate new information will become completely predictable – and humanly unbearable. It is in the interests of preserving the possibility of dialogue (creativity), then, that Flusser discusses the task of art criticism, again, with the tools of information theory: the more improbable and informative a given gesture may be, the higher its value as art – and this will be the case whether the object in question in an image, musical performance, new algorithm, scientific insight or business plan. Treating art as information leads him to some startling and irreverent conclusions, for example, the possibility that our inherited concept of art effectively blocks our perception of new, especially new digital images,18 or that the idea of an avant-garde, just by virtue of its isolation, is ‘ridiculous’.19 But perhaps more startling than either of these is the insistence that any future art criticism will have to accommodate the tendency for new information to become old, familiar – it will have to take the formation of habit into account.20
The engagement with information theory does not, on the surface, seem to involve Schendel. It is highly abstract, impersonal, and the relationship with her was neither. What links the two is clearly dialogue. In the sustained concern with Schendel’s on-going project, with her thinking and experimenting, elations, frustrations, demands and above all persistence, Flusser had seen the force of dialogue for himself, experienced it producing new information, in this case new both highly improbable objects and equally improbable ideas. He could write about creativity and dialogue with phenomenological confidence.
He would, further, resist any thought that dialogue might diminish difference, might blur the distinct features, the identities of the separate participants. It comes to something of a test in his vision of artists of the future (no longer called ‘artists’, for in the universe of technical images they are so different from traditional artists as to have acquired the name “Einbildner’ or ‘envisioners’). After warning us about the tendency of technical images to steer us toward intolerable sameness and boredom, Flusser goes on to envision them used creatively, that is, in dialogue. Toward the end of Into the Universe of Technical Images (1985), he treats himself to a rather extravagant vision of how this might look (the weakness of the term ‘images’ is exposed here, because the material being exchanged might be acoustic or tactile, as well as visible). In his description, the exchange is truly exhilarating – like musical improvisation in multiple dimensions, sensitive to harmonies and dissonance, to the particular strengths and weaknesses of the particular players, totally absorbing, culminating in a joyous suspension of self-awareness.21 Yet Flusser insists that such creative exchange does not result in any diminished sense of self but that, on the contrary, it provides the ideal conditions for recognising, acknowledging and appreciating what is singular, unique about any one person’s characteristic contribution. Even in this rather fantastic bit of science fiction, then, Flusser does not contradict his own direct experience of dialogue.
Gesture and the artistic life
If information theory seems to gain and lose prominence in Flusser’s thought over time, his grounding in phenomenology is constant. One of the best examples is his persistent engagement with the thoroughly phenomenological idea of gesture. The three books in which he outlined his theory of communication appeared in quite rapid succession, in 1983, 1985 and 1987, respectively.22 The volume titled Gesten (Gestures), first published in 1991, ‘traces back to years of talks and courses Vilém Flusser gave in São Paulo and Aix-en-Provence’.23 The book bears witness to a striking continuity in his thinking. It suggests someone moving around his objects of study – a bit like the photographer he describes in ‘The Gesture of Photographing’ moving around his subject, changing the distance, changing the angle, finding what he may not have quite known he was seeking. The book consists of eighteen essays. Two are introductory, and sixteen bear the title, ‘The Gesture of …’. Many of the gestures correspond to established ‘media’, for example, writing, painting, videoing or filming. Some, such as ‘The Gesture of Planting’, take up a broad historical shift in social consciousness, in this case the rise and spread of ecological awareness. Still others examine such repetitive, familiar movements as shaving.
‘The Gesture of Writing’ comes first after the introductions, and, in this context, it quickly becomes identifiable as an analysis of Flusser’s own most characteristic gesture – the one through which he articulates his own way of being in the world most effectively. From here, we move out, with him, either as participants or as spectators of the various gestures, and Flusser takes care to state his own experience – or lack of it – in each case. ‘The Gesture of Painting’, for example, is written from the standpoint of someone observing a painting-in-progress, for Flusser did not paint. In fact, within the collection, ‘The Gesture of Painting’ presents a kind of primer in the phenomenological method, the careful bracketing out of prior knowledge about the matter at hand. It starts with a deliberate refusal to accept that the painter is the ‘cause’ of the painting, or even that the ‘painter’ can be regarded as separate from his or her brush or pigment or canvas. The memorable conclusions he reaches here include the idea that a painter is really only a painter in the gesture of painting itself, in the actual movement.
Nothing in ‘The Gesture of Painting’ contradicts the memory of Schendel. And yet her presence seems far stronger in another essay, “The Gesture of Smoking a Pipe’. The title hardly announces any discussion of art, and so it comes as something of a surprise to find Flusser using pipe-smoking to establish both a weak connection and a very sharp distinction between himself and a ‘real’ artist. For, of course it is Flusser himself who is the pipe-smoker.
The essay is concerned with a classification of gesture, and more particularly with the classification of ritual gesture. The broad contention – argued in more detail elsewhere – is that, with allowances for overlap, a given gesture will belong to one of three broad categories: work, communication or ritual. He argues that pipe-smoking belongs to the third category, ritual – defined as a gesture that is meaningful without either changing anything, as work is intended to do, or communicating anything. This furnishes the occasion to look more closely at ritual, and in particular at religious ritual. He emphasises how Jewish tradition in particular guards zealously against any association between its rituals and, for example, magic – for magic seeks to have an effect in the world, and so constitutes a form of work. He himself seems somewhat startled to conclude that ritual gesture is essentially aesthetic – not concerned to change the world or to communicate anything but to ‘act out’ a unique way of being in the world. And it is on this last point that his pipe-smoking is drawn into the comparison – because it, too, is only an expression of a singular, personal set of judgements with no further ambitions. Pipe-smoking is exposed as a pale, small example of ritual, only just enough to appreciate the kind of gesture that dominates ritual lives, the lives of priests, prophets – and artists:
It will be apparent to anyone who has ever made such a [ritual] gesture that we recognize ourselves in them, and only in them: only in piano playing, only in painting, only in dancing does the player, the painter, the dancer recognize who he is. It is a founding principle of Zen Buddhism that self-recognition can be a religious experience, if the recognition is of the ‘whole’ self: its rituals (tea drinking, flower arranging, board games) are therefore sacred rites. Certainly the greatest discovery of Jewish prophesy is that religious experience is an experience of the absurd, the groundless, that ‘God’ is manifest as that which is inexplicable, indefensible, ‘good for nothing else’: hence its battle against magic and its insistence on the absurd rite, with no aims that make any sense. But all these noble insights, those of the artist, the Zen monk and the prophets, can be gained in a modest and profane way by watching such everyday gestures as pipe smoking with sufficient patience. For then it becomes clear how each of us is a virtual artist, and a virtual Zen monk, and a virtual prophet. For each of us performs purely aesthetic, absurd gestures of the same type as smoking a pipe. What also becomes clear, of course, is what sets us most of us apart from real artists, Zen monks and prophets: namely the complete renunciation of reason (in the sense of explicability and purpose) and the unconditional surrender in the gesture and to the gesture essential to the real artist, the real Zen monk, the real prophet.24
The real artist, then, is someone who lives in ‘renunciation of reason and the unconditional surrender in and to the gesture’. It is someone quite different from a person for whom the aesthetic gesture is superficial, as pipe-smoking was for Flusser himself. I contend that Mira Schendel had shown him such a life. She presented him with a challenge of such intensity and consistency that it burst the boundaries of any understanding of art available to him at the time. He was forced to develop another. In a sense, he never recovered the lost boundaries, for they dissolved in the much broader context of gesture. As gesture, art emerged as a particular kind movement, an expression of a one kind of intention rather than a vast inventory of objects, or ‘works’. Set free of physical objects, art flows out of dedicated institutions and becomes a particular dimension, an intensity, a level of commitment potentially available in any human activity at all.