PRINT September 2012

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John Rajchman on Vilém Flusser’s “Curies’ Children”

Page from Artforum 26, no. 8 (April 1988). Vilém Flusser, “Curies’ Children.” Shown: Garry Winogrand, Los Angeles Airport, n.d.

WHAT IS—and has been—the relation of artists and philosophers to media, media theory, and media studies? The column that Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) contributed to Artforum from 1986 through 1992, titled “Curies’ Children,” offers something of a case study. For after his untimely death, Flusser’s reputation grew in Germany, then in America, to the point where he has recently been acclaimed as “perhaps our greatest media philosopher.”

At the time of his Artforum writings, however, Flusser was barely known. Nor had he yet been constituted as a media philosopher. What attracted editor Ingrid Sischy to him, creating for the first and last time a philosopher’s column in the new, glossier Artforum? It was the 1980s, the postmodern decade, an era of post-this and ends of that, and “our greatest media philosopher” took it all in, recasting the discourse in his peculiar idiom and lending it a scientific air. Thus the old McLuhanesque theme of the way in which writing, and the outdated “linearity” of the book, was being undone and displaced by “technical images” like broadcast TV––and, for Flusser, photography––was seen as part of a larger end of history itself. An initial idea for the column was to write something called “taking leave of literature,” a theme he did eventually take up in the November 1991 issue in an installment titled “On Books.” Since then, there have been many versions of the theme of the “end of the book” (it’s even become something of a cliché). Looking back, what was special about Flusser’s version?

Since Flusser’s death, a whole German-language scholarship has served retrospectively to establish him as a grand if unsystematic thinker and, partially through the influence of Friedrich Kittler––who called him a “messenger from Old Europe, from Central Europe”—as a media philosopher or communication theorist. But looking at Flusser’s Writings, published in English in 2002, one is immediately struck more by an extraordinary philosophical itinerary, which in turn provides a larger context and framework for his Artforum column and his thought. Underneath his many shifting viewpoints there is an ongoing “philosophical autobiography,” a long and complicated search for what he came to call the home (Heimat) of writing. Today, when the larger framework of a new technical “image culture” replacing print, books, writing, literature, or history has receded from us, it is this itinerary, this search, that stands out—in particular, the question of thinking it poses and the many encounters and dialogues to which it gave rise in the two phases of Flusser’s experiences of displacement or homelessness, first in Brazil, then back in Europe.

Relocating with his wife from Europe to São Paulo in the early ’40s, Flusser would search for a new “home” for the European philosophies still in his head, and for the “task of writing” that informs them. He himself recounted this “search for meaning” in a “Philosophical Self-Portrait” in 1969, the year when calls were first successfully issued for an international boycott of the São Paulo Bienal, in which he nevertheless participated. Distraught, at times near suicide, during these years Flusser looked for ways and spaces to “translate” his philosophy and reinvent himself. In 1987, looking back on this period, Flusser spoke of a disappointed quest for a kind of philosophical-artistic sense of Brazil itself, freed from “Eurocentric prejudice,” a great mixing of traditions and peoples yet rooted in the Portuguese language, “the breeding ground for everything that Brazil has produced in the last century, beginning with Brasília and ending with bossa nova.” The rise of the military dictatorship in 1964 would eventually bring an end to this deterritorializing laboratory in and of Brazil. In this climate, and following criticisms by “the so-called left,” in 1972 Flusser reluctantly returned to Europe, eventually settling in Robion, a small town in France, a kind of “anti-Brazil,” where his Heimat was supplied simply by the remaining habits of writing itself: “My usual writing desk stands in the middle of the house with the usual disorder of books and papers.” From this literary retreat, he would pen his Artforum columns.

The story of this search for a home for writing and thinking, unmoored from old Europe, then reestablished through German-language scholarship, helps one to see the ambivalences or vacillations in the “communication theory” he would go on to develop in Robion. The interest in communication theory arose during his Brazil phase in part through his friend Milton Vargas’s ideas about information theory and mysticism. But in fact information theory grew up elsewhere, notably in what George Dyson has recently called Turing’s Cathedral in Princeton, New Jersey, as part of a broader complex of new research laboratories (Bell Labs and RCA), universities, and the Institute for Advanced Study linked to the invention of the bomb and the computer. It would spawn many artistic spin-offs, such as Robert Smithson’s “entropy” in and out of sites.

Flusser’s column “On Books” in 1991 might read along such lines, as a kind of information-theoretical joke leading to the paradox of its punch line, where he decides to celebrate the writing whose end is predicted by information theory. This slight note of desperate humor suggests not only his earlier, darker itinerary but also the tensions in the idea of communication he was working on. For what he called communication is not information; its theory is not a science; and it is not determined by a medium, at least not in the sense McLuhan gave to the term. Communication is more than a code, since it involves a “dialogic” element irreducible to “discourse.” Thus, in the column, he presents books as peculiar objects that defy scientific laws, a temporary miracle, now threatened. For, opening a book, we “participate in a conversation,” become responsible for its continuation, experience “the dramatic urgency of living.” The problem is then how such communication can survive in the new image culture. It is this kind of “extra-discursive dialogue” that played a key role in his long pursuit of a home for the practice of writing, once its old European locus had been forever lost (given that the Prague circles of his “well-to-do Jewish parents” had disappeared in the Holocaust).

If we look back to the Brazilian context where Flusser’s extradiscursive dialogues began, often outside the academy, we find that the “plastic arts” were central to the genesis of his thought. He threw himself into the visual artists’ game, “took up . . . their major and minor manifestations, their tendencies and their inner conflicts,” and in the process found a way out of his “formalist sterility.” The dialogue into which he thus entered came at a rich moment for Brazilian art and writing. Moving away from the “calligraphic dream” of concrete poetry, thinkers there began to attend to new relations between writing and drawing, marks and surface, leading to a troubled, fragmented language, which opened onto a non-Cartesian idea of thinking. In this form of thinking the body plays a vital role, through the actual marks it makes but also in the kind of prelinguistic, affective zone it creates and into which one must plunge in order to find the “unthought” vital to thinking. This experimentation became the object of a great dialogue often carried out in small, open groups; at the same time, there was a turn in art from formalist object to dialogue with (or “participation” from) the audience, undoing its constituted subject positions. We see all this retrospectively in Flusser’s writings dating from the time before he left Brazil, especially on Mira Schendel and “the origin of language.”

However, at the moment of Flusser’s retreat to Provence, his anti-Brazil, the dialogue surrounding this bodily zone of thinking and art was starting to be carried on in Paris, where many Brazilian artists were heading. In particular, Brazilian women writers and artists found new roles here, as with Lygia Clark’s abandonment of art in favor of anthropophagic “ritual” and Clarice Lispector’s rediscovery as an exemplar of écriture féminine. But Flusser’s trajectory had taken him elsewhere. We find little of these thoughts in his later writings. For that matter, there is not a single reference in his columns to similar artists and writers in New York, either, who worked with related ideas or practices. Yet his earlier Brazilian “search for meaning” remains important to us today, a latent context for his columns. It is there that we glimpse a picture of art, language, and thinking very different from, say, Sol LeWitt’s “concepts,” and from the whole idea of dematerialization. Indeed, what was at issue was less the end of the book than opaque, wounded, fragmented signs; abandoned letters, plundered from discursive or narrative sources, about delirious dancing, writing, and graphic gestures displacing the mere display of words or ideas and opening onto another kind of interaction, its sense more obtuse than obvious: writing and image as a constant bodily provocation of thought. In other words, it is the great Brazilian moment in which Flusser participated that matters for us today because it serves to provincialize Greenberg-style modernism as the crux around which everything turns; it helps us to see New York modernism as only a limited variant in a much more complicated story of writing and image carried on in many ways and places.

So is Vilém Flusser our greatest media philosopher? Why not, I suppose, but only on the condition that media theory free itself from its po-mo paradigms and its schemes of the great passage from writing to “technical image.” For in our digital situation today, with the triumph of finance capital in the very idea of contemporary art, of Instagram, Twitter, Photoshop, the digitization of photography and cinema along with libraries and books, Google, cell phones churned out not by Bell or RCA but by Foxconn, this framework has become increasingly quaint. What Flusser’s complex itinerary suggests is that the real problem is not pictures versus words but, given available means at a particular juncture (and the larger social-technical apparatuses and forms of knowledge in which they figure), how to actually make a real image or piece of writing––one that causes us to think, one that helps create the vital spaces of connection and dialogue in which thinking lives.

John Rajchman is a contributing editor of Artforum and a professor in the Department of Art History and archaeology at Columbia University. He is currently working with Luis Perez-Oramas in organizing this fall’s São Paulo Bienal.