Vilém Flusser's Writings

Review by Mark Garrett Cooper

Vilém Flusser. Writings (Electronic Mediations Series). Ed. Andreas Ströhl. Trans. Erik Eisel. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

[1] Vilém Flusser should be read more often. Those presenting Flusser's work to Anglophone readers typically voice this sentiment, and I am compelled to follow precedent. In Writings, editor Andreas Ströhl has assembled a collection of short essays – the longest runs twelve pages – on Flusser's favorite topics: the relation of writing to images, history and its aftermath, exile and homelessness, philosophy, religion, and the problem of the human. Occasionally stunning in their novelty, and uniformly engaging in their wit, the volume's twenty-six essays do not amount to a finished theory or system. Rather, one finds a series of provocations bundled around a few central themes.

[2] In arranging the volume and in writing his introduction, Ströhl aims to recover Flusser the eccentric, but rigorous phenomenologist from his reputation as a modish theorist of images and "posthistory." To do so, Ströhl not only includes essays indicating the breadth of Flusser's interests but also narrates a biography in which the account of mediation develops through momentous dislocations. Ströhl follows the philosopher himself in understanding geographical movement as revelatory of circumstances and possibilities previously concealed by the numbing familiarity of habit. Essays on the simultaneously liberating and perilously disorienting qualities of migration (e.g., "Taking Up Residence in Homelessness" and "Exile and Creativity") clearly indicate Flusser's debt to Husserl and Heidegger, and his 1969 reflection "In Search of Meaning (Philosophical Self-Portrait)," explains how the experience of exile informed his engagement with phenomenology. The pivotal moment in this story is Flusser's recollection that "I was vomited, by the fury of events, upon Brazil." Born in 1920, Flusser describes himself as coming from "well-to-do intellectual Prague Jewish parents" and as spending his "youth in the spiritually and artistically inebriating atmosphere of between-wars Prague." Expulsion allowed him to survive "groggily, the bestial and stupid earthquake of Nazism, which devoured my world (i.e., my others and my things), but also the scales of values that had structured that world" (198). It obliged a reappraisal.

[3] The uprooted Flusser continued his independent philosophical investigations in São Paulo while working in a radio factory, and became, according to Ströhl, "driven by the idea of becoming a Brazilian citizen and of ... developing Brazilian culture" (xxi). A 1981 essay, "Mythical, Historical, and Posthistorical Existence," included here, indicates something of the fascination Brazil held for Flusser. In his "Philosophical Self-Portrait," Flusser claims Guimarães Rosa and Vincente Ferreira da Silva as his "two great Brazilian masters," but unfortunately the volume does not provide much insight into the nature of this apprenticeship (203). Flusser became profoundly enmeshed in Brazilian intellectual and cultural life. In 1963, he published his first book, Lingua e realidade, and was made professor at São Paulo's College of Communications and Human Sciences. The following year, however, a military coup d'état began for Flusser a period of gradual disengagement from his Brazil project, and in 1972 he moved again to Robion in southern France. In 1983, after a decade of independent research in France, Flusser published Für eine Philosophie der Fotographie (Towards a Philosophy of Photography), which turned out to be his breakthrough book. He was killed in an automobile accident on his return from speaking at Prague's Goethe Institute in November 1991.

[4] Together, Ströhl and Flusser give this intellectual biography ample treatment, and Ströhl takes particular care to highlight key moments in the reception and circulation of Flusser's ideas. He attends also to the specificity of Flusser's concept of communication (via an informative comparison with Habermas) and describes briefly how Flusser's version of a posthistorical, image-based present differs from that of Jean Baudrillard (Flusser rejects the concept of simulation) and compares with that of Marshall McLuhan (the comparison reveals the phenomenological aspects of McLuhan). Other logical points of comparison (e.g., Fredric Jameson and Jean-François Lyotard) are not considered, but perhaps this is just as well. The reader wants some work to do. Overall, the introduction succeeds in providing a lucid appraisal of Flusser's seriousness as a philosopher, his various polyglot engagements, and his intellectual development in relation to, but fundamentally outside of, the academic institutions of Europe and the United States.

[5] Flusser's outsider status probably explains why these essays so often spark with unexpected juxtapositions. An engagement with natural science gives several of the pieces a distinctive twist and makes them surprisingly timely reading amidst the current "crisis" in the humanities. "What is Communication?" (1973-74), for example, opens the volume with the contention that human communication is "negatively entropic" or "negentropic" (5). Flusser here pits the information storage capacity of humanly devised codes against the second law of thermodynamics. He distinguishes the "explanation" of that storage capacity from its "interpretation." From the perspective of natural scientific explanation, communication wages a predictable but improbable and necessarily losing war with entropy. But from the perspective of humanistic interpretation, "the storage of acquired information is not an exception to the law of thermodynamics . . . but rather, it is the perverse intention of a human being condemned to death" and thus is an expression of human freedom. In a significant variation on a familiar Heideggarian theme, Flusser presents "the thesis that human communication is an artistic technique directed against the solitude unto death" as identical with "the thesis that human communication is a process directed against the general entropic tendency of nature" (6). This volume is filled with such engaging collisions.

[6] In opening Writings with "What Is Communication?" Ströhl allows Flusser to frame his more broadly known concerns with mass mediation and "posthistory" in terms of their most serious philosophical stakes. Here, as with exile, Flusser finds the possibility of freedom in the defamiliarization and reworking of codes, forms, and habits. At the same time, he wants to decouple that possibility from historical models, to distinguish temporality from historicity. Setting the timescale of human affairs against the inevitability of cosmic "heat death" is a particularly dramatic version of this gesture. A more common variation involves a division of the human legacy into three epochs: a prehistorical age of images, an historical age dominated by writing, and a posthistorical era of "technical images." It is never lost on Flusser that such an account bears the stamp of the historical era whose obsolescence it announces.

[7] How Flusser sees the relation of history to images is perhaps clearest in "Line and Surface" (1973), which begins with the observation that "[s]urfaces are becoming ever more important in our surroundings" (21). Flusser designates mass-produced and circulated images as "surfaces" in order to contrast them with written "lines." In compelling our attention to move from point to point across the page, he avers, writing predisposes "line thought," of which history, as "a project toward something" is a manifestation. "Surface thought" differs. Images do not arrange information in linear sequence but disperse it across two dimensions so that the time of viewing does not determine an order. When images unfurl linearly, as in a film or a television program, that ordering still includes within it the distinct temporality of surfaces. (A point of comparison would be Deleuze's cinema books and the discovery of "movement-images" within the unreeling "time-image.") For Flusser, "it becomes obvious that 'history' as embodied in reading written texts means something quite different from what it means in reading films." But, he hastens to add, "[t]his radical change in the meaning of the word history has not yet become obvious, for a simple reason: we have not yet learned how to read films and TV programs" (24-25). We do not know how to read them because we continue to think of surfaces in the way writing taught us to, as representations of objects. Flusser rejects this starting point. He points out that the familiar description of photographic images as referencing the sorts of objects with which one might have a physical encounter has little to do

with most of the things that determine us at present – either the things that occur in explanations or the things that occur in images. The genetic information or the Vietnam War, or alpha particles, or Miss Bardot's breasts are all examples. We may have no immediate experience of any of these things, but we are nonetheless determined by them. Where we can have no immediate experience, it is the media themselves that are the things for us. (27)

In this way, technical images differ dramatically from the cave paintings that provide Flusser's customary example of prehistoric images. Rather than more or less adequate representations, they should be considered as projections or programs, forms that model subsequent engagements with the world. This may seem a familiar turn to many twenty-first century readers, but the particular configuration is striking. The end of the twentieth-century might have gone a bit differently had "surface" supplanted "discourse" as the privileged figure for mass mediation. It is refreshing to find the problem of photographic reference so efficiently swept aside on phenomenological grounds as simply the wrong question.

[8] In sum, Ströhl has thoughtfully organized and presented a collection of engaging, short pieces by this under-appreciated philosopher. I hope to have conveyed, inter alia, the fun of Flusser's style. The volume does include a reflection on his decision to treat "erudite" topics in "lively" as opposed to "academic" prose ("Essays" [1967]), and I think the liveliness of the essays might make them efficient conversation starters for undergraduate classes. At their worst, the pieces will strike some readers as merely clever and, perhaps, solipsistic. At their best, they will provide the rare thrill of an unexpected vantage point on territory that had seemed thoroughly known.