PRINT March 1989

Curies' Children


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 numbers cluster in mosaic patterns called “algorithms.” Still, typewriters handle letters as if they were numbers. A separate key moves each letter. Typewriters do not write fluently, but they “process” the letters. In fact: they are not writers but counters. Let’s consider why this is so.

There is an easy explanation: all mechanisms stutter—even if they seem to be gliding. (All one has to do is observe a badly working motor car or film projector to confirm this.) But the easy explanation begs the question, which is really: “Why do all mechanisms, including typewriters, stutter?” Here is the answer: because everything stutters. Of course, just as you have to listen very carefully to hear that someone who speaks fluently stutters, you have to look very closely, sometimes with highly specialized and sensitized equipment, to discern this stuttering in all the world’s mechanisms and operations. Thus it was only recently that Max Planck, generally regarded as the father of the quantum theory of modern physics, was able to show how oscillating atoms absorb and emit energy in quanta, rather than in the continuous flow posited by classical physics. Planck’s work then, in simple terms, was the first to demonstrate that everything stutters (is “quantic”), although as early as Democritus some people suspected that this was so. Planck’s work implies that clear and distinct (stuttering) numbers are adequate to the world, and that fluent letters cannot grasp it. That is, that the world is indescribable but that it can be counted. This is why numbers should leave the alphanumerical code, become independent of it. This, in fact, is already happening: we have already begun to establish new codes (like the digital one) to feed computers. As for letters—if they want to survive—they have to simulate numbers. And this is why typewriters stutter.

However, a few remarks are in order. For instance: in order to count, you have to divide any given thing into little bits (“calculi”), and stick a number on each bit. Thus it may be held that the notion that the world consists of countable particles may be a consequence of our counting. In other words, it may not be a discovery at all, but an invention: the world may be counted perhaps because we have ourselves handled it that way. Thus it may not be true that the number code is adequate for the world, but that we have made the world adequate to numbers. This is discomfiting.

Because this is the case, we have to suppose that the world was structured differently before this. Ever since the time of the Greek philosophers, people used letters to describe the world. Thus one could assume that the world was once structured according to the rules of disciplined discourse, which are the rules of logic, and not, as is the case now, according to the rules of disciplined counting, which are the rules of mathematics. In fact, as late as Hegel, it was held that everything in the world is logical (which to us is an insane proposition). But if we can attribute Hegel’s “insanity” to the fact that he was a writer, we may have to attribute our own “insanity” to the fact that we are the users of computers, which “tell” us that everything in the world is an absurd accident the probability of which may be calculated.

The situation becomes even more uncomfortable when we consider Russell and Whitehead. They demonstrated in Principia Mathematica that the rules of logic cannot be fully reduced to the rules of mathematics. When they attempted to handle logical discourse according to mathematical rules (“proposition calculus”), they found a fundamental discrepancy between the two structures. Thus we can build no satisfactory bridge between the Hegelian and the Planckian world. In short, ever since we began to count methodically (ever since Descartes proposed analytical geometry), the structure of the world has changed, and it cannot be satisfactorily tied to its previous structure. And it is this disquieting fact that we must try to face at present.

We may try to argue that it is we ourselves who decide the structure of the world. If we like to write, the world will follow the structure of logical discourse, and if we prefer to count, it will follow the structure of mathematics and will become a particle swarm. But unfortunately such an argument will not hold up. For it is only after we began to count that we could have machines (for instance typewriters), and we cannot live without machines, even if we wanted to. Therefore we cannot but count the world.

At this point, we court the danger of falling into the bottomless pit of religious exaltation. To avoid the risk of Pythagorean worship of numbers, we should compare the gesture of writing with the gesture of counting. If you write by hand, you draw a complex and partially interrupted line from left to right (that is: if you live in the Western world). Yours is a linear gesture. If you count, you pick pebbles. Yours is a pointlike gesture. But when you count, first you pick (you calculate “1 plus 1”), and then you assemble (you compute “2”); in other words, you analyze and then you synthesize. This is the radical difference between writing and counting: to count is to aim at a synthesis, while writing is only critical (analytic).

Some people who are committed to writing try to deny this. They identify counting only with calculating, and say that it is a cold, unfeeling activity. This is malevolent misunderstanding. One who calculates does so in order to compute something new, something that has not previously existed. The creative heat in counting is inaccessible to those who have not learned how to handle numbers. They cannot perceive the philosophical beauty and depth of some equations (like Einstein’s). But now computers can transcode the numbers into shapes, sounds, and colors, and thus the beauty and depth of counting can be perceived by our senses. The creative power of counting can now be seen with one’s eyes on computer screens, heard with one’s ears in synthesized music, and soon may well be graspable with one’s hands in holograms. This is what is so fascinating about counting: that it is now capable of projecting worlds that can be perceived by our senses.

Those who vilify counting insist that those projected worlds are nothing but fictitious simulations of the true world. Perhaps they are right, but for the wrong reasons. For those projected worlds are computations of calculations, but so is our “true” world, as our nervous system receives pointlike stimuli that our brain computes into our perceptions of the world. Thus, either the projected worlds are just as true as the true one, or the true world is just as fictitious as the projected worlds. The marvelous thing about counting is that as it enables us to project alternative worlds, we need no longer be subject to a single one.

“Ah Love! could you and I with Fate conspire/ To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,/ Would not we shatter it to bits—and then/ Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!,” wrote Omar Khayyam in the Rubaiyat. Those who claim that we are about to shatter to bits that sorry scheme of things entire are perhaps unable to see that we may be able to compute it nearer to the heart’s desire. It is time for those people to learn how to count.

Vilém Flusser is 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. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.