PRINT Summer 1992



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 composed of crossings and recrossings.

Suppose that you have accepted the argument that sedentary people cannot be progressive. You might now expect nomads like hunters, shepherds, or visiting professors to follow the straight line. They seem to live in open spaces, they are public figures, and thus are free to follow the tips of their noses. However, you will find that this is not so. On their way toward death they do not follow their noses but some purpose like deer, sheep, or academic honors; this leads them astray, and their ways of life become distorted. Nomads are just as incapable of real progress as are settlers, and erratic confusion seems to be our human lot. Unless, of course, the term “progress” is given a different meaning.

There can be no doubt that to live means to walk toward death, because it is a fact that to live is to move, and because there is no other direction in which to move than toward extinction. Those who stay in bed and never get up try to deny this, but by doing so they prove why the rest of us get up in the morning. If we did not expect to die there would be no hurry, and we could stay in bed forever. Now on our way toward death we come up against one obstacle after an other. The Latin word for obstacle is “obiectum” and the Greek one is “problema.” On our way we come up against one object after another, and those objects are problems. We overcome the objects, we solve the problems one by one, and the sum total of this may be called progress.

If by progress we mean accumulated problem solving, we are committed to a curious position. For instance, the American way of life is considered more progressive than the way of life of Australian aborigines, because Americans have solved more problems than the aborigines have. The question here is: Who counted the problems, an American, an Australian aborigine, or some third party? Which reminds one of Darwin. Each and every species now in existence is the most progressive of them all, because it has solved all the problems that have stood in its way, which is why it has not (yet) been extinguished. From its own point of view the AIDS virus is more progressive than the human species, because it has survived all attempts to eliminate it; it has solved all its problems. But, after all, this is not a very satisfactory definition of progress.

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni offers a way out of this dilemma. Don Juan has a purpose: the conquest of all the women in the world. As Leporello tells us, 1,003 women are the measure of Don Juan’s progress toward his goal, and he is a cultural hero in the West because he is so extraordinarily progressive. This is, by the way, the principle computers stand on. A purpose is fed into them, and they approach it with record-breaking speed by progressive additions. Don Juan is a mythical computer: out of 1,003 sexemes (or sexels), he approaches progressively total sexual computation. Thus Mozart’s opera shows what progress has come to mean, and where it leads.

Let us reconsider Don Juan’s problem. He aims at conquering all the women in the world. Logic tells us that instead of saying “all the women,” we may say the class of “Woman.” Don Juan aims at conquering the Woman. And his strategy is called “induction.” He tries to get at the Woman in general by adding one special woman after another, until the entire class of Woman is exhausted. This is not a very intelligent strategy, and progress in this sense is not a very intelligent way of living. There is a better way to get there. The Woman in general is contained in each and every special woman. This is why each woman is a member of the class of Woman. He who has conquered this “Woman-ness” hidden in every woman has achieved more than if he had conquered all the women in the world. And this proposes a different meaning again of the term progress.

This may be put as follows: each and every object (problem) that I encounter on my way contains a nucleus, a central point, that somehow connects it to all the other problems in the world. If I could really solve a single problem, I would have solved all the mysteries in the world. The reason why I cannot do so, why I cannot really solve even one problem, is doubly complex. On the one hand, each object in the world is surrounded by an infinity of points of view, and it can be exhausted—solved—only if all those infinite points of view are applied to it. On the other hand, the moment I assume one of those infinite points of view, the problem shows itself to be my own projection, and it involves me. To give a very simple example: let a drinking glass be my problem. It is surrounded by an infinity of points of view, for instance that of chemistry, of the glass market, of the history of Occidental art, of industrial production. I cannot assume them all, because I shall die long before I have even begun to jump from one to the other. But I know that if I could assume them all, I could solve every problem in the world. So I take at least one point of view, and I look at the drinking glass from my present position. It appears to have a circular shape, but, of course, I know that this is only my own projection. If I had looked sideways at the glass, its shape would have been elliptical, or it might have been a straight line. I am involved in the problem of the drinking glass the moment I have assumed a point of view with regard to it, and if I change my point of view it is myself who is changing just as much as the drinking glass is.

This simple example was offered to show where Don Juan was mistaken. He believed that it was possible to add one woman to another to get at the Woman, and that this could be done without getting involved in the process. And the result was that the Man of Stone (“il convitato di pietra”) took hold of him. It is the lack of involvement that was Don Juan’s undoing. If I want to solve the problem of the drinking glass, I get involved within it, it swallows me up, I forget myself within it, and the nearer I get to the center of the problem, the more I lose myself within it. This is the true reason why I cannot really solve even a single problem: long before I get near the center, I am no longer really there. This is true of the drinking glass, as it is true of each and every problem, but with the Woman it is not only true but mysteriously sacred.

On my way I encounter a woman, and in this sense she is like the drinking glass: an object, a problem. But as I approach her in my desire for her, she herself approaches me, because I am, myself, her problem. This mutual encounter reveals the infinity of points of view that surrounds each one of the two, and this may be called “recognition of each other,” and a lifetime is far too short to even begin to exhaust that recognition. (The traditional name for this lifelong attempt for mutual recognition is “love,” although that word may have become suspect.) Of course, this does not solve any problem long before the solution is reached, each one is lost within the other, and thus has forgotten what he (and she) were after.

The purpose of this reflection on progress was to suggest that there is a meaning to the term that may help us to understand why we do whatever we do. To progress may not mean to advance, not to go from one thing to another, but it may mean instead to return over and over again to very few points, in an effort to get involved with them and thus to go ever deeper into them. Of course, this meaning of progress has always been the sign that distinguishes greatness. Mozart comes back over and over again to the problem of harmony, Van Gogh to the problem of color, Newton to the problem of force over distances, Plato to the problem of form. And as they come back to it over and over again, they progress. But the important thing about this is the self-forgetting that marks that progress: this love, this fidelity, this opening oneself up and letting oneself be swallowed.

We have computers at our disposal. These Don Juan–machines show what progress means if understood as step-by-step problem solving. But we also have photo cameras, which are tools for assuming points of view as they surround objects. A photo camera progresses not by advancing from object to object (if it does so it has betrayed the principle it stands on), but by revealing ever new aspects of one single object. A camera is a tool for a phenomenological vision, and this whole reflection was intended to show that progress may have a phenomenological meaning. We should take photo cameras and not computers as models for progress. If we do so, we might avoid—not death, of course, but the Man of Stone who is waiting for us, and whom so many prophets of doom are predicting as the wages of progress.

Vilém Flusser taught communications at São Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles. This column is published posthumously.