Vilem flusser: media theory with an ethical claim

To the 10. Death anniversary of the homeless philosopher, whose lectures were determined by the beat of the typewriter

"I have prepared a manuscript, but i will put it aside and not stick to it…" anyone who has listened to vilem flusser’s lectures and discussions knows this sentence, with which he introduces his inspiring thoughts in public speeches. In this sentence flusser expressed the productive tension between oral and written speech that determined his philosophical biography. Vilem flusser has the rare gift of formulating media theory as an ethical claim. This gift was born out of the need to make a living as an emigrant in brazil as a media technician and publicist. His legendary lecture "homeland and homelessness", which appeared on an audio cd in 1999, illustrates the connection between media technology and the ethical question of dealing with the other and the stranger.1.

On the cd, one hears the jew, born in prague in 1920, as he first presents an autobiography as a philosophical problem: "whoever describes his own biography has not lived at all", is his characteristic sentence. It marks his desire and need in the contradiction between philosophical insight and the urge to publish. He has nevertheless left behind numerous autobiographical attempts, some of which are published in the philosophical autobiography "bottomless"2 are gathered.

Vilem flusser: media theory with an ethical claim

Flusser studied philosophy in prague before he had to flee from the nazis. He emigrated to sao paulo, brazil, via london. There, he first worked in business before he understood the plight of being a foreign speaker as a gross opportunity. The portuguese spoken in brazil appeared to him as a programmable weaving machine, which allowed immigrants from japan, italy and the jewish emigrant flusser to melodically mix words from their mother tongues. Flusser saw in this nascent language a welcome opportunity to elegantly present abstract concepts from the theory of science and communication.

The perfect house with roof, wall, windows and tower exists only in marchenbuchern. Material and immaterial cables have pierced it like an emmental: on the roof the antenna, through the wall the telephone wire, instead of windows the television, and instead of tower the garage with the car. The ideal house has become a ruin, with the wind of communication blowing through its cracks. This is a shabby patchwork. A new architecture, a new design is ofnoten.

Viem flusser: as perforated as an emmental cheese

To conceive of language as a formal system that can be used advantageously by those who are not entrenched in the roots of language is a thought that the mathematician alan turing posed to himself in the same period of time. The turing machine operates abstractly on a "potentially" endless band and is neither place- nor time-bound, thus without grounding and without the ballast of the past. Flusser does speak in the metaphor of the mechanical age when he writes in his autobiography "bottomless" the brazilian language a "loom" calls", but at the same time he emphasizes its manipulability. It stylizes itself as a language technician who, due to its lack of adherence to a national soil, can consider words and their rules of association as data sets that can be processed free of native sentimentality.

Flusser’s language program was successful. He became a sought-after essayist, whose style was imitated by younger authors, advanced to professor of communication theory, and was an advisor to the sao paulo biennial. He is even said to have been offered a ministerial post, which he turned down with the simple comment that such a political post was dishonorable for a learned man. It was probably remarks like these that made his situation in militarist-ruled brazil so difficult that he had to emigrate again in 1972, settling in france. Flusser died on 27.11. 1991 in car accident near czech-german border.

After his resettlement in robion, france, flusser drafted the plan of an autobiography, which was not to be oriented to a linear temporal progression, but to encounters and phases, which intersected with each other and were to clarify the network of friends. The published biography is a fragment that combines passages written in france with texts from the estate and remains an open system that informs a fundamental dichotomy between monological essays and portraits of flusser’s dialogue partners. At the same time, the fundamental tension that determines flusser’s media theory becomes recognizable, namely between the written elaborated discourses and the interest in the oral exchange speech. Writing and monologuing from a manuscript was both a curse and a vocation for flusser; oral articulation and curiosity about the speech of his friends a desideratum that flusser cultivated weekly in legendary gatherings on the terrace of his house in sao paulo and articulated in numerous interviews, in which he patiently set apart for journalists his ideas about the end of book culture and the beginning of a new electronic dialogicity.

Vilem flusser: media theory with an ethical claim

In germany the "nomad" flusser became known as a theorist of photography and new media. He published in various languages, which he understood as different media, including the german of his prague origin. Flusser encountered fortunate circumstances and enthusiastic people in germany who helped him to make a name for himself as a media theorist. The best prerequisite for this was once again the refugee’s need to communicate in foreign situations, but then also a lively awareness of german philosophy before national socialism, which flusser kept alive without regard for the academic positioning of the german post-war period. He did not need to distinguish himself as a heideggerian or a neo-kantian cultural philosopher from the phenomenology of husserl or viennese positivism. Flusser received these currents first in prague and then with great intensity in self-study alongside his work as an entrepreneur in brazilian sao paulo or rio de janeiro. At the beginning he read cassirer, wittgenstein and carnap in search of a meaning of life under the conditions of escape from the holocaust and the economic pursuit of war profiteers in brazil, but then – and this is the essential condition of his success as a media theorist – flusser interpreted the crisis of occidental epistemology as a liberation from metaphysical and national roots. A crisis that, in his view, becomes a utopian potential in the perspective of transnationally operating media technologies, especially photography and the computer.

Discussions with his engineer friend and brazilian mentor milton vargas made flusser realize as early as the nineteen-fifties that computers would revolutionize business and society. Flusser’s success in germany must be seen against the background of the commitment of flusser’s friends and dialogue partners. Harry pross, for example, repeatedly invited flusser to seminars and gave the nomad from brazil the opportunity to exchange ideas with the scholarly public in germany. The publisher andreas muller-pohle has collaborated with the tireless lyricist to publish his numerous manuscripts, lectures and essays in monographs such as "for a philosophy of photography"3, "into the universe of technical images"4 and "the scripture"5. These publications are long-sellers, whose success is based on flusser’s ability to bridge the gap between scientific theory and journalism on the one hand, and the broad public need for orientation knowledge about the media society on the other.

Philosophy for the listener

The need for a theory about the future of the technical image was enormous in the eighties and obscured the broad philosophical basis of the erudite migrant’s reflections. He himself refused to be addressed as a philosopher and saw himself as a gifted story teller and shrewd metaphorist. Flusser’s widow, together with klaus sander, has now published the letters "letters to alex bloch"6 published from the archive of the kunsthochschule fur medien koln. The letters illustrate flusser’s struggle with the contrast between oral exchange and written fixation, and reveal an interpersonal drama behind them.

The letters are addressed to the prague jew bloch, who, like flusser, fled to brazil to escape the national socialists, but who always resisted any attempts at publication. The volume publishes exclusively flusser’s letters, since only a few handwritten and fragmentary letters from bloch himself have survived; from flusser, on the other hand, a volume that now fills 212 printed pages. It documents the emergence of media theory in critical dialogue. Thus flusser carries the concept of his "communicology"7, d. H. The historical shift from image to text to techno-image in a letter to bloch of 16.12. 1977 and discusses this thesis in three perspectives at the same time, knowing full well that he will not satisfy bloch as a reader and trusted critic with a simple perspective on media development. In a portrait of bloch, flusser describes his brazilian friend’s contribution to writerly production:

"One [flusser] had worked on a book or written an essay. One waited impatiently for bloch to be able to read it aloud…Bloch’s criticism was living proof that intellectual dishonesty is always reflected stylistically. None of these escaped him… One’s own style and way of thinking are partly consequences of this ruthless blochian catharsis. After the lecture, bloch analyzed not so much the content as the mood in which it was written. He thus put the text in the context of its own ‘truth’… He was probably interested in writing, because it was self-analysis. But publishing was vanity for him, and he had only contempt for it. He himself did not have to write, because it was done for him".

The writer flusser thus appears as the organ of the dialogue partner bloch, who, like socrates, can be said to have been the, "who wrote nothing" . At the same time, bloch is a means and a sounding board for flusser, who has decisively contributed to the increase of the journalistic quality, but has also always kept awake the awareness of the formal-medial narrowness of the written points of view. The letters demonstrated the genesis of flusser’s media theory and at the same time conveyed the quality of an oral philosophy, that of bloch’s occasional worker, the "zuhalters", "borsen speculator" and "musicologist", who wisely resists the chance to publish.

Flusser now saw in computer-assisted communication the chance to replace the obligations of written culture, i.E., the need to communicate. H. Scientific specialization and fixed ideologies, to leave behind. The speech "home and homelessness" recalls the ethical background of flusser’s media theory, namely that the computer and the conscious formulation of social codes make it possible to free oneself from the traditional authorities of occidental culture and especially from nationalism. Therefore, new possibilities of human coexistence come to the fore, which are not regulated by abstract authorities, but by fast and efficient exchange of knowledge. Shaping the relationship between the foreign and the own in such a way that the homeless and the foreigner is perceived in his or her own way can be done with the help of new media. Media theory therefore appears to be a consequence of an ethical claim rather than a justification for technological innovation.

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