PRINT September 2013


Cow-milking-machine demonstration, ca. 1946. Photo: Kirn Vintage/Corbis.

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 contemplating future man?” If Andy Warhol’s Cow Wallpaper, 1966, perfectly captured a midcentury conversion of natural mind into mechanical, bovine stare and pastoral landscape into mass-produced neon decor, Flusser looks ahead, contending with the coming convergence of carnal life, machine, and informatic network.

IN ONE OF HIS LAST INTERVIEWS before his untimely death in 1991, Vilém Flusser claimed that “we are actively generating our tools and through them we are generating the world, but it is also true that those tools are striking back and generating us.” We create products that are projections of our bodies and nervous systems, but then we forget that we are the model for our creations, at which point the latter start modeling us. At first glance, this dynamic (which Flusser called a “tragic feedback”) seems vintage Marshall McLuhan, but not even McLuhan, the prairie boy from the beef province of Alberta, applied it to cows.

Flusser’s famed originality has little to do with new ideas. As Thomas Mann liked to say, anybody can make up stuff; true artistry consists in making something out of what is already there. Flusser was an indefatigable abductor and improver of ideas, a mental balloon artist able to twist simple shapes into startling contraptions that both mock and enrich our impoverished understanding of things. He was philosophy’s most committed defamiliarizer; he had seen enough of the world to realize that it cherishes a mental rut—it always wants to be seen in the same way. In order to perceive it differently, you need to rattle the mind with surprising imagery and jarring connections capable of shedding unexpected light on familiar objects and environments. As demonstrated in the short bovine rumination that follows, Flusser’s basic procedure was to devise sequences composed of assemblies, analogies, and implications. His underlying trademark logic is one of inspired impishness. First step: If machines are prosthetic extensions of mind and body (a very questionable assumption and Flusser’s weakest point), and if domesticated animals including cows are machines, the obvious analogical consequence is that we will assimilate to our cows as we do to our machines. Second step: Cows are cheap, structurally complex but easy to handle, multifunctional, and blessed with great plasticity. In other words, they are computers, hooved and horned Turing machines full of data and dairy. As a result, we bovine dependents are ourselves in danger of turning into info-grazing cows. With a few twists, Flusser has wrapped an entire theory of breeding, civilization, and cultural techniques into a wake-up call to keep us from going bovine. Those who forget their creations are condemned to resemble them.

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young is a professor of German at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

COWS ARE EFFICIENT MACHINES for the transformation of grass into milk, and if compared to other types of machines, they have an unquestionable advantage in this regard. For example: They are self-reproductive, and when they become obsolete, their “hardware” can be used in the form of meat, leather, and other consumable products. They do not pollute the environment, and even their refuse can be used economically as fertilizer, building material, as well as combustible fuel.* Their care and handling is not costly and does not require highly specialized manual labor. While they are structurally complex systems, functionally they are very simple. Since they are self-reproductive, and since their construction happens automatically without the need of intervention from engineers and designers, this structural complexity is an advantage. They are versatile, because they can also be used as energy generators and engines for slow vehicles. Although they have certain functional disadvantages (for example: Their reproduction requires antieconomical machines, “bulls,” and certain functional problems require the intervention of expensive university specialists and veterinarians), they could be considered as prototypes of future machines that will be designed by advanced technology and informed by ecology. In effect, we may state that, as of now, cows are the triumph of a technology that points to the future.

If we take into consideration their “design,” our admiration for the inventor of the cow grows even stronger. Although it is a highly automated machine controlled by an internal computer (a brain), and although a cybernetic system made of highly refined electrical and chemical pulses guarantees its functionality, the external shape of the machine is made to be quite aesthetically satisfying due to a surprising economy and simplicity of elements. The impression the cow gives is that of a creation that is well integrated with itself and within its environment. The cow’s “designer” was not influenced by this or that contemporary aesthetic tendency, although he did follow an aesthetic intuition characteristically his own (though we can find certain undeniably baroque elements in the cow’s design, despite the fact that its design betrays the influence of certain nineteenth-century biologizing tendencies). For example: The elegant mobility of the tail contrasts with the solid immobility of the rest of the creation, and generates a tension achieved otherwise only by [Alexander] Calder and his followers. But what is most impressive in the cow’s design is this: the surprising gamut of variations that its prototype allows. The prototype is fundamentally simple (it has been elaborated, for example, by Picasso in the “Tauromaquias”), but such simplicity allows for a large number of varied stereotypes. In this respect, the cow’s prototype is an authentically open creation. There are, among the stereotypes, the ones that adapt themselves to national and even regional mentalities (Swiss, Dutch, English), the ones that are adapted scenically (cows from the Alps, the meadows, the steppes), and even inexpensive stereotypes aimed at underdeveloped areas (Zebu, Central African cow).

This, however, does not exhaust the cow’s “aesthetic message.” The stereotypes are supplied to the consumer along with an “instruction manual” that is equivalent to an invitation to take part in a game. The buyer of cows can, if he so desires, project his own model by “crossbreeding” in such a way that the purchase of cows does not condemn him to passive consumerism, but opens space for an active participation in the “cow-game.” So much so that, finally, game theory has been significantly absorbed by technology. We can foresee a future moment within which technological progress will no longer be the privilege of a handful of specialists designated by the administrative apparatus, but a game in which the “masses” shall actively participate, freely varying prototypes. The cow’s inventor has provoked an authentic technological revolution, both in a functional and aesthetic sense that opens the horizon to a new “being-in-the-world” of future man. This was achieved by having synthesized the most advanced scientific knowledge and the most refined technological methods with acute aesthetic sensibility and clear, structural, cybernetic vision, informed by game theory. There is no doubt: The cow represents a fundamental “departure.”

Yet this is not to say that the cow does not also represent a danger and a threat. As cows become cheaper and increase in number (an inevitable process given the impetus for progress), and as other machines of a similar type emerge, there will be a subtle yet profound transformation in the human environment. Current machines, to which humanity has been adapting itself through an arduous process since the Industrial Revolution, will be gradually substituted by machines of the “cow” type. And since such machines impose a different vital rhythm and a whole different praxis, there will emerge the need to readapt that will necessarily have, as a consequence, a new individual and collective alienation. This fantasy predicts not only the dissolution of great cities and the formation of small clusters around cows (to be called, for example, “villages”) but also, as a consequence, the dissolution of the basic societal structure and its substitution for another that is currently only imaginable. However, that is not the worst of it.

It is well known that humans have the tendency to “mirror themselves” in their products. The process goes roughly like this: Man projects models in order to modify reality. Such models are taken from the human body. For example: The weaver’s loom has as its model the human finger, and the telegraph is modeled on the human nervous system. The model is realized as a product. Subsequently, the human model behind the product is forgotten and the product establishes itself, in its turn, as a model for human knowledge and behavior. For example: Steam engines are taken as models for the man of the eighteenth century, chemical factories in the nineteenth century, and cybernetic apparatuses today. Such tragic feedback between man and his products is an important aspect of human alienation and self-alienation.

Therefore, the gradual substitution of current machines for machines of the “cow” type could result in the definition “man = cow.” Man may not recognize his own project in the cow; he may forget that the cow is the result of his manipulation of reality according to his own model, and accept the cow as something that is somehow a “given” (for example: He may accept the cow as some kind of “animal” and therefore as part of “nature”). In this case, the cow will assume ontological and epistemological autonomy and will, so to speak, become a model for humanity itself behind man’s back. In being precisely such a highly sophisticated and anthropomorphic machine (by the way, every machine is anthropomorphic for the reasons stated above), the “machine” essence of the cow could become obscured. In such a case, “genetic explanations” of the cow that prove it is a result of human manipulation will be of little use. Through daily contact with the cow, the impact will be at an existential level. At this level, all “explanations” will become irrelevant (just as such “explanations” are currently irrelevant for those who have daily contact with computers). The mere daily presence of the cow will exert its “cowifying” influence. The fantasy refuses to imagine the consequences of this.

However, it is necessary to face the danger. The fantasy must be forced. It reveals the vision of a humanity transformed into a herd of cows. A humanity that will graze and ruminate, satisfied and unaware, consuming the grass in which an invisible “shepherd” elite has a vested interest, and that will thus produce milk for this elite. The elite will manipulate humanity in such a subtle and perfect manner that humanity will imagine itself to be free. This will be possible thanks to the automatic functionality of the cow. The illusion of freedom will perfectly obscure this “rustic” manipulation. Life will resume itself in the typical functions of the cow: birth, consumption, rumination, production, leisure, reproduction, and death. A paradisiacal and terrifying vision. Who knows, as we contemplate the cow, are we contemplating future man?

However, the future is only virtual. There is still time for us to act. Progress is not automatic, but a result of human will and freedom. The progress toward the cow can still be stopped. Although certainly not as a “reactionary” act. Not through the attempt to deny the obvious advantages of the cow and the imaginative creative force that manifests itself in it. But through the attempt to adapt the cow to real human necessities and ideals. The cow is without a doubt a threat, but also a challenge. It must be confronted.

Translated from Portuguese by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes.

Visit Artforum’s archive at for an article by John Rajchman on Vilém Flusser’s column in this magazine, “Curies’ Children” (1986–92), from the September 2012 issue.


* This essay was written during the late 1970s; therefore, data regarding the polluting effects of the methane gas emitted by the world’s bovine herd was not yet available or taken into consideration. [Translator’s note]