PRINT September 1986



WE ARE ABOUT TO ENTER the age of electromagnetism. Microelectronics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and holography are some of the signposts on our path away from a material culture and toward an “immaterial” one in which we will concentrate on the processing of rays rather than on the manipulation of inert, perfidious matter. Electromagnetism is about the oscillation of the particles that constitute the rays. Light is such an oscillation. Electromagnetism, then, is about visible and invisible light. What we are about to enter, then, is the true Age of Light. But before we congratulate ourselves on this feat we should consider the implications contained in this metaphor.

We prefer light to darkness, a Manichaeanism that manifests itself in numerous images: the Buddha as the enlightened One, the halos surrounding the heads of the Christian saints. We can see what sort of light is involved in those images if we look at an Orthodox Eastern icon. It is the light that comes in from the background, the golden light of transcendence. Not everyone approves of this sort of light; certainly the moderns did not, because it makes things appear so dogmatically, and appearances were not to be trusted. The moderns preferred a different sort of light, one that illuminates the scene from the point of view of the viewer, rendering it transparent. Most of the modern metaphors that deal with light—clarification, enlightenment, reflection—mean the awareness projected by the human subject onto the objective world. But we are no longer moderns, and as postmoderns, we do not trust this beam either. We are after a different sort of radiation.

All the modern metaphors for light may be reduced to this: the “light of reason” is a kind of searchlight that will work only if the area at which it is directed is covered by darkness. Once the background light has been switched off, the scene becomes accessible to the searchlight, which first illuminates the foreground (nature), and then penetrates ever deeper into the background darkness (its invisible substructure). It will bring to light, discover and clarify, what hides there. It will discover the wires that link and regulate, the laws of nature. But the searchlight of reason sought the true infrastructure of nature for the purpose of achieving power over it. Thus the metaphor “the light of reason” can be seen as a variation of the mythical themes of Lucifer and Prometheus. It is hard to agree with this identification of the light of reason with the devil, because the dream of that light (truth discovered through science) did not suggest hellfire. But at present, when science no longer searches for truth but for falsification, and when technology results in Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Chernobyl, in thermonuclear devices and in environmental pollution, we are in a position to taste the Luciferian flavor of the light of reason.

As for the moderns, some of them did not fully trust the light of reason either, because its torch comes equipped with a curious gadget, a metaphorical mirror that reflects the rays of reason back onto reason itself. This is the business of reflection and speculation, or the critique of reason, which clarifies those dark places where the light of reason originates. And those dark places are indeed infernal ones, as we have found out lately. Two different hells are in fact brought forth by the critique of reason: one that is found by formal, or Wittgensteinian, investigations; the other, by existentialism, or Freudianism. The formal hell shows us that all reasonable statements are either true but meaningless (tautologies of the type “it either rains or it does not rain”), or meaningful but false. The existential hell shows us that reason sits upon an infernal brew of repressed desires. Thus it may be said that reason, with its inbuilt mirror, is bound to destroy itself through a sort of feedback: the more its light advances into the darkness beyond, the more it flickers. Still, this did not prevent our modern predecessors from bearing that light forward.

We can do so no longer. Our modern forebears were a bit too successful in rendering all things transparent, and this triumph of reason was to be its downfall. We can now see through all things, and what we see is a background radiation quite unlike the one switched off when the light of reason began to move forward. The radiation we now see gives off more rays than the transcendent one, as we may find out if we compare an atomic mushroom cloud to the golden background in a Byzantine painting. But this is not what makes electromagnetic radiation so different from transcendent radiation. The difference comes up in two different ways, both of which are uncanny. The background radiation (the electromagnetic field) consists of particles that oscillate, and the light of reason is incapable of clarifying this oscillation; it cannot be switched off, for the light of reason merges with it and has to admit it cannot advance further. What it can do, however, is clarify its own limitation. Thus reason, having discovered radiation, also discovers its own incompetence with regard to it.

But there is more. Neurophysiological research has begun to prove that perception, imagination, sensation, desire, and decision-making can be broken down into chemical and electromagnetic processes in the brain. These processes consist of particles of energy that jump across the intervals, or synapses, between adjacent neurons, which means that the mental processes are in effect a kind of electromagnetic radiation too. This is not merely an empirical or a theoretical statement. The action of the brain synapse can be simulated in inanimate objects like semiconductors, a simulation that results in artificial intelligence, a form of reason. But no doubt is possible here: this aspect of the light of reason is a background radiation. Such machines calculate, perform logical operations, make decisions, and bring other machines into accord with those decisions, a technological advance which has already begun to have consequences. One is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between the products of human and artificial intelligence. Another consequence is that the radical distinction between the mental and the material, between spirit and matter, will become obsolete if it is admitted that both are forms of energy, or radiation.

This is the metaphor that suggests itself to identify this new age: there is an ocean of light, which is partly visible and partly not, and all things are permeated by it. So are we ourselves; our reason is one means by which this ocean of light infuses us. In fact, everything about us, our own bodies, our own minds, are soaked with radiation. The Age of Reason doesn't know how to understand it all, since the ocean of light is bottomless, and nothing is hidden behind it. Postmodernism is this conundrum of oscillation. It is the play of rays upon rays that we must try and give a meaning to if the new Age of Light that we are about to enter is indeed to be a promise of a radiant future.

Vilem Flusser us a teacher of communications at São Paulo University and at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographic, Arles. He has written various books on modern communications.