Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New media and old philosophy: What would Vilém Flusser think about e-books?



BY ANKE FINGER
Associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut


In an essay titled “The New Imagination” (1990), Vilém Flusser emphasizes the need for a “critique of image criticism” – and he considered letters to be images as well. He writes: “The linear gesture of writing tears the pixels from the image surface, but it then threads these selected points (bits) torn from the images into lines. This threading phase of the linear gesture negates its critical intention, in that it accepts the linear structure uncritically. … If one wants a radical critique of images, one must analyze them.” Images, he insists, must be calculated and explained, not threaded into linearity. This “new imagination,” as he calls it, is an outgrowth, a result of years of writing on the technical imagination, so astutely presented in Flusser’s trilogy, published in the 1980s (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Into the Universe of Technical Images, and Does Writing Have a Future?). The shortest summary of Flusser’s evolution of media, provided at the end of this essay, reads as follows: “First, man took a step back from his life-world, to imagine it. Then, man stepped back from the imagination, to describe it. Then, man took a step back from the linear, written critique, to analyze it. And finally, owing to a new imagination, man projected synthetic images out of analysis.”

These steps overlap, of course, and we have not yet quite reached the very last one. Nonetheless, Flusser suggests a drastic move after this long history of repeatedly threading critiques: he proposes a step forward towards a critique, a step towards an imagination out of computation, not from description and experience. This imagination marks a step toward creativity, toward “true expression,” and, according to him, turns homo faber (Man the Creator) into homo ludens (Man the Player).

We all want to play – and new media often permit us to play at our own volition and by building our own critique or imagination (not that there’s a whole lot of difference for Flusser here). The future of reading and writing, for Flusser, is one that is enmeshed with the reading and writing of images, a process that can always be creative and presents always a potential challenge. His media philosophy, focused in large part on the interconnectedness of text and image, proscribes non-linearity inasmuch as computation, calculation and analysis demand creativity – they are imaginative actions, not descriptive ones; it’s simply not about collecting facts or observations or about regurgitation.

How does that translate to integrating new media platforms and gadgets such as Twitter or e-books into our lives? Flusser would have been an unlikely Tweeter; why restrict one’s input to a silly 140 characters? However, the forms of dialog Twitter facilitates would possibly have fascinated Flusser inasmuch as the networking and dialoging defies linearity. E-books, especially new versions like the Kindle Fire, might have inspired his critique of the apparatus, the program, and the images/letters presented. Do we “see through” the surface, do we understand and “play with” the underlying program, the materiality of what the “game” of e-books presents us with? Does the e-book allow us to break through the constructedness of itself, to rearrange its purported magic?

For someone who hammered away at his typewriter, an e-book might have been a marvelous machine, albeit one that Flusser likely would regard with skepticism. I recently thought about Flusser when I found myself sitting on the commuter train from Grand Central station back to Connecticut with an army of readers, heads bent over the object in their laps, simultaneously determined and aloof.

I was the only one holding a book.

Paper, yikes!

Everyone else handled an e-book or a smart phone (with apps for online books), “turning” “pages” (?) with the tip of a finger, cradling the slim plastic board in both hands as if the cherished item would otherwise slip away.

We are engaging in a new imagination, and we like to play. Whether we are willing to calculate and compute the images we see on an e-book, though, remains to be seen. So far, we are simply trying to understand and analyze the transition from linearity to circularity or networks, from the haptics of a book or image to their digital forms – forms informed by pixels and algorithms. Flusser calls our attention to these underlying levels – and challenges us to play with them.

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Anke Finger is associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. She is co-author, with Rainer Guldin and Gustavo Bernardo, of Vilém Flusser: An Introduction.

"Flusser is one of our lost gems—the other McLuhan, and dare I say the better. A global citizen writing alternately in German, Portuguese, English, or French, Flusser meditated on words and gestures, translation and doubt, cities and images. He was a master of the essay form. I believe he had the ear of both gods and men. In this important book on Flusser we are introduced for the first time in English to perhaps our greatest media philosopher."
—Alexander R. Galloway, New York University

"Flusser is one of the world’s most interesting theorists of communication and culture, yet his work is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Anke Finger, Rainer Guldin, and Gustavo Bernardo are the most qualified scholars in the world to provide this contextualizing introduction to the complex array of his work."
—Douglas Kellner, UCLA

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