On writing, complexity and technical revolutions, Interview by Miklós Peternák in Osnabrück, European Media Art Festival, September 1988
Vilém Flusser: I am here at Osnabrück for the following reason: I am impressed by the fact that one of the most important dimensions of the present cultural revolution is not sufficiently accentuated. Namely the fact that linguistic communication, both the spoken and the written word, are no longer capable of transmitting the thoughts and concepts we have concerning the world. New codes are being elaborated, and one of the most important codes is the code of technical images. So I came to Osnabrück to look at what those people are doing.
Let me explain a little bit what I mean. It has been clear for several centuries now that, if we want to understand the world, it is not sufficient to describe it by words: it is necessary to calculate it. So that science has had ever more recurrence to numbers, which are images of thoughts. For instance, the number two is an ideagram for the concept “pair” or “couple”. Now this ideographic code which is the code of numbers has been developed, in a very refined way, lately, by computers. Numbers are being transcoded into digital codes and digital codes are, themselves, being transcoded into synthetic images. So it is my firm belief that if you want to have a clear and distinct communication of your concepts, nowadays you have to use synthetic images and no longer words. And this is a veritable revolution in thinking. And I am very much interested in this, but I have to confess that, as far as my experience in Osnabrück is concerned, I haven’t seen much in this sense. The reason may be that people do not yet know how really to handle the new apparatus. Is that an answer to your question?
Miklós Peternák: It can be. Maybe you can say something regarding your book Die Schrift, about the development of concepts and ideas…
Flusser: “I try to say in this book, [Die Schrift, Göttingen: Immatrix Publications, 1987], the following: when alphabetical writing was invented, let’s say 3500 years ago, a total transformation of our – not only our experience, but even our action was involved. Before the invention of writing, traditional images where used as maps of the world and the structure of images involves a specific way of looking at the world which is the mythical way. Now when alphabet was invented, mythical thought gave way to historical critical thought. Because the structure of linear writing is a uni-dimensional, un-directed line. So that, by and by, people started to think historically in a causal way, and in a critical way. Now that this line has been disrupted into points, now that discourse has been substituted by calculus, historical progressive thinking is being abandoned in favor of a new type of thinking which I would like to call, let’s say, a systemic or a structural way of thinking. And so I believe that we are present and witness to a revolution which can be compared to the one which gave origin to history. In my terminology I say that before the invention of writing, people thought in a prehistoric way, and after the invention of the alphabet, historical consciousness was elaborated. And now we are in the process of elaborating a post-historical, structural way of thinking.”
Peternák: In your lecture here, you made a distinction between the structural and functional complexity.
Flusser: That’s quite right.
Peternák: Can we hear some more details about the idea?
Flusser: Yes. I think that systems can be complex in two senses. They can be structurally complex, for instance, there can be systems where the elements maintain a very complex relation with each other. But they can be also functionally complex, which means that if you use the system, you can use it in a complex way. Now those two complexities are independent one on the other. A structurally complex system may be functionally simple, like a television box which is a structure of almost impenetrable complexity, but the use of which is extremely simple. On the other hand, simple systems like the chess game can have very complex functional manipulations. It is a fact that functionally complex systems are a challenge to creative thought whereas functionally simple systems are stultifying, idiotic. Now the complex systems which now are coming about are complex in structural sense, whether they will be functionally complex or not depends on us. For the time being, those complex systems are being used for functionally simple uses, which is why the intellectual aesthetic and even ethical level of mankind is lowering. But, this is not the fault of the system, it’s the fault of the users of the system. We may in time learn how to give a functional complexity to these structures, and this is what I am committed to.
Peternák: Do you think a discipline which we could call ‘philosophy of images’ or ‘theory of images’ exists, or it might develop?
Flusser: Yes, I think there is a long history to the philosophy of images, and most of it is negative; because due to our Greek and Jewish tradition, philosophy has a prejudice as far as images are concerned. It is the prejudice that an image is only a copy, a simulation of thought, so that either it is forbidden to make images, or images are being accepted with a great distrust. But I think this is now changing because the images no longer represent the world. Those new images are now the articulation of thought. They are not copies but projections, models, so a new attitude toward the image is necessary, and I think it is developing. Walter Benjamin was one of the first thinkers who articulated this and I believe that we are all in this tradition.
Peternák: Who are the scientists who, in this century, are working in this direction? Who are those scientists who are important for you, even if your ideas are not developing in the same direction?
Flusser: I can give you two names, on the one hand Roland Barthes, which to me is very important as I started from his thought, although I consider it totally wrong. And on the other hand, on the other extreme, Marshall McLuhan, who proposes an attitude toward the image which I consider fascistoid. I am absolutely against him, but still, it is a point of departure. May I mention a third thinker, Abraham Moles, who is a close friend of mine, and with whom I am in almost daily contact, but with whom I tend to disagree more and more. I would like to say the following, if I may. Every revolution, be it political, economic, social, or aesthetic, is in the last analysis a technical revolution. If you look at the big revolution through which mankind has gone, let’s say the Neolithic Revolution or the revolution of Bronze Age, or the Iron Age, or the Industrial Revolution, every revolution is, in fact, a technical revolution. So is the present one. But there is one difference. So far, techniques have always simulated the body. For the first time, our new techniques simulate the nervous system. So that this is for the first time, a really, if you want to say so, a really immaterial, and to use an older term, spiritual revolution. I think that it is important to say this in your context.
Peternák: Thank you.
Transcription adapted by: Zeyno Pekünlü & Vladimir Jerić Vlidi
We wish to express our gratitude to Miklós Peternák for helping us with this historical material.
This interview was originally published as a part of “We shall survive in the memory of others” DVD release (2010).