Vilém Flusser

  • COWS

    The only philosopher to have contributed a regular column in these pages, VILÉM FLUSSER (1920–1991) was among the most prescient—and eloquent—thinkers on the environmental conditions of a world mediated by technology. Here, scholar GEOFFREY WINTHROP-YOUNG introduces an exclusive excerpt from the first English translation of Flusser’s book Natural:Mind (first published in 1979 in São Paulo as Natural:Mente by Duas Cidades), out this month from Univocal Press. In the essay “Cows,” Flusser poses the animal as a “highly automated” machine, asking, “As we contemplate the cow, are we

  • Progress

    Our two eyes look ahead (unless we turn our heads), and our two feet point in the same direction (unless we do a step dance). This is why the idea that our way of life follows a straight line seems reasonable. But if we examine the matter more closely, we will find that progressive ideologies are mistaken. If we imagine that we walk on a surface upon which our steps could leave traces, we shall discover a pattern similar to the one that underlies the traffic in an anthill. Our ways of life (be they American or otherwise) are not straight lines that lead from birth to death; instead, they are

  • the Term “Design”

    Editor’s note: It was with great sadness that the editors of Artforum heard recently of the death of Vilém Flusser, a distinguished writer and teacher of communications and a regular contributor to these pages. A number of Professor Flusser’s columns for Artforum, completed but unpublished at the time of his death, will appear in the magazine in future issues.

    MANY ENGLISH WORDS have become terms used internationally. At present this is taken to be a symptom of Anglo-Saxon predominance within the cultural realm. But the case of the term “design” is different. In its international use, “design”

  • Books

    AS MATERIAL OBJECTS they are almost worthless. Their specific gravity is high, and to carry even a few of them can be an uncomfortable matter. If you move, transporting your books costs more than they’re worth, and rearranging them in their new home is a nightmare. Books are a burden measurable in kilos, cubic feet, and hours. We submit to them as to an addiction: we seem in permanent need of their strings of letters, opening them up again and again to pick some of those letters out.

    A Martian, in fact, or some other illiterate, might suppose that a book is a vast heap from which we gather letters

  • Three Spaces

    WE ARE LIVING TUBES (WORMS). The world flows in through one of our openings (the mouth) to flow out again through the other opening (the anus). This is why we can distinguish between “forward” and “backward.” Most of us are bilaterally symmetrical, and this is why we can distinguish between “right” and “left” (though some of us, like sea urchins, are too many-sided to do so). Originally we all crawled forward and backward, and left and right, on the beach of some Precambrian ocean, and thus there was no need or possibility for us to distinguish between “upward” and “downward.” Somewhat later

  • Three Times

    Once upon a time the world was a wheel: day was followed by night and night by day, winter by summer and summer by winter, birth by death and death by rebirth. About three thousand years ago that wheel changed into a stream, where everything flowed forward, nothing repeated itself, and every opportunity lost was lost forever. We know the wheel by heart and from looking at watches. We learned about the stream at school, in history class. But nowadays that stream is changing into a sand heap, the grains of which are distributed ever more evenly, though here and there they tend to fall into improbable

  • Art and Politics

    BOTH THE ARTIST and the politician are people who do things to be exhibited in public. To Plato, in fact, “art” and “politics” were two words for the same thing. If we no longer quite share his opinion (though some of us may agree that politics is an art), it is at least partly because we no longer despise art quite as much as he did.

    Plato held art and politics in contempt not because both are exhibitionists—as far as we know, he had no objection to prostitution—but because both try to impose ideas. That must involve adapting the idea to whatever it is imposed on. To Plato, the adaptation was

  • Popes

    ART CRITICISM, AS AN ATTEMPT to translate from images into the words of a language, has to do with the building of bridges. In ancient Rome, bridge builders were called pontifices, and the head builder—pontifex maximus—still lives in that city. Which is to soy that art critics and the pope are in the same business.

    Bridge building in general is an address of the problem of transportation over the abyss. The ancients, for example, thought there were two worlds, the mundane one below the moon and the heavenly one above it, and they were separated by a divide. But traffic between the two worlds was

  • Future Architecture

    PEOPLE INHABIT CAVES, TENTS, HOUSES, cubes piled on top of each other. People need habit, for it is only within habit that an experience acquires meaning, just as information theory asserts that it is only within redundance, or repetition, that a noise becomes information. But you don’t have to know information theory to see that a tourist who has no home wanders about, and finds no meaning anywhere. In the Middle Ages we believed that we were all such tourists: homines viatores. Having lost our heavenly home, we were all roaming erratically in this vale of tears called the world. That is why

  • An Unspeakable Future

    WITTGENSTEIN’S TRACTATUS LOGICO-PHILOSOPHICUS concludes with the statement, “Whatever cannot be spoken about must be silenced.“ A few paragraphs earlier Wittgenstein writes, ”It is true that some matters are unspeakable. These show, they are what is mystical." (I have translated these statements from the German to suit my purpose.) I want to suggest that these ideas are wrong, and that we have to show them to be wrong if we are to understand what is going on right now. For an increasing body of thought that cannot be put into words may now be expressed in other ways, without anything mystical

  • WONDERING ABOUT SCIENCE

    IN ONE SENSE, THE purpose of science is to do away with wonders: science is a discourse of explanation, and one definition of a “wonder” is a thing not yet explained. Science is said to “enlighten” us because it allows us to understand and master phenomena, instead of wondering about them. Thus, as scientific knowledge advances, the world grows less and less “wonder-full,” and more and more wonder-empty.

    On the other hand, however, our feeling of wonder deepens as science develops. Science can’t explain everything—it cannot erase wonders from our consciousness, but must content itself with pushing

  • Future Architecture

    HUMANS INHABIT—NESTS, caves, tents, houses, or cubes piled one on top of another. One might even say that the act of inhabiting is inevitable because people need habit, because experience only becomes meaningful to us through habitual repetition. Theory of information tells us, for example, that it is only through repetition that a “noise” becomes information. Knowledge of information theory, however, is not required to understand that a wanderer who has no habitat will process information differently from those of us who have permanent homes. Medieval thinkers believed that we were all such

  • Discovery

    SOME PEOPLE SPEAK with fluidity (which does not necessarily imply that they speak correctly). Nobody counts with fluidity (although one may do so correctly). The reason is that numbers are clear and distinct. There are definite intervals that must be between numbers for them to be understood. The alphanumerical code, then (the signs of which are inscribed on the keyboard of typewriters), is a collage of fluency with stuttering. The letters (which are meant to render spoken sounds visual) merge to form words, the words merge to form sentences, and the sentences merge to form a discourse; but the

  • Science

    WHY IS THAT DOGS aren’t yet blue with red spots, and that horses don’t yet radiate phosphorescent colors over the nocturnal meadows of the land? Why hasn’t the breeding of animals, still principally an economic concern, moved into the field of esthetics? It’s as if nothing in the relationship between humanity and the biological environment had changed since the life-style revolutions of the neolithic age. Yet at the same time that the farms of North America and Western Europe are today producing more food than we can consume, we also, not coincidentally, have learned techniques that ultimately

  • Discovery

    THE GREEK WORD “MORPHOGENESIS,” which means “birth of form,” would have had a curious sound to classical ears. The understanding of the time would have questioned how forms could be born—weren’t they timeless? By looking at the world, the ancient Greek could see that this was so. Take cows, for example: each cow is born and dies, but the form of the cow is always the same, and it somehow passes from animal to animal with only marginal distortion. The form “cow” is a timeless container through which each individual cow flows; anyone interested in cows should consider the form, and not the shapeless

  • Discovery

    HOMO SAPIENS’ CURIOUS ABILITY to make pictures of the world may be observed in images on cave walls that coincide with the earliest days of human consciousness. Lately, however, a new capacity is emerging—we can now make pictures of calculations, and these may be observed in images on computer screens. Both these capacities manifest themselves in the shape of pictures, but they should be distinguished from each other. If they are not, we risk missing the point of the cultural revolution of our time.

    To make a picture of something in the world, one must step back from it. The question is, Where

  • Discovery

    WHATEVER THE TERM “art” may mean at present, it had a different meaning for the ancients. Then, two art forms were held supreme: the art of living, ars vivendi, and the art of dying, ars moriendi. We have unlearned the second of these, but the first has recently reemerged in a surprising shape: it is now called “biotechnics.” The word seems a Greek-derived version of the Latin ars vivendi, but it is quite different in climate from the ancient sense of the term. In fact, it is a discipline out of which a whole world of artificial living beings—living artworks—will arise, and that adventurous

  • the brain.

    “THE SPIRITUAL IN art,” “the spiritual in people”—we inherit and we read and we watch and listen to descriptions of a person, or a thing made by someone, as “spiritual.” Such an idea is commonplace, but in reality, of course, we are all mammals, and what we make are the products of mammals. It’s true that we have realized certain inventions that sometimes allow us to behave as if we were something different: for a while now we have been able to make machines that we fly like birds, for example, and human females’ eggs can now be fertilized outside the womb, like those of fish. As a rule, though,

  • The known within the unkown within the known.

    EVERY AGE HAS ITS MEN and women who want to go beyond the conventional wisdom, who want to know better. Through centuries, for example, everyone thought that the substance of things was composed of earth, water, air, and fire, and that ideally these elements would form four perfect spheres, with fire on the outside surrounding air, which in turn would surround water, which would cover the earth. Aristotelian theory essentially said that the behavior of the elements could be explained as their efforts to stay in the spheres in which they belonged: if a stone is thrown into the air, it falls back

  • what comes after Z.

    AFTER CENTURIES OF ACCEPTING the alphabet as a given, the question of why and how to visualize language is of renewed validity today. It’s an obvious response to say that we write in letters precisely so as to avoid writing in ideograms, but why should anyone want to avoid them in the first place? Why take this long detour through language instead of describing ideas directly through images, as the pictographic origins of the alphabet suggest that we once did? Why not write with ideograms instead of letters, as the Chinese do, and as we are beginning to do when we use computer codes, and when