The following excerpts are from of a series of 59 “think pieces” written by Vilém Flusser and serialised in the Folha de São Paulo newspaper during the first semester of 1972, just before Flusser left Brazil for good, and thirty-two years after arriving in South America after escaping Nazi occupied Czechoslovakia. From his immediate family, Flusser was the only one who managed to escape the Nazis, losing his mother, father, and seventeen year-old sister, who were all killed in the concentration camps.
In the 60s and 70s Brazil was under military dictatorship and after the student uprisings of ’68 in France and Brazil, the regime became harsher; both censorship and persecution of those opposed to the junta began in earnest, led by a new President: General Medici (perhaps a very distant cousin of the Florentine rulers), who came to power with a new slogan, “Brazil: love it, or leave it.” Today, our recently elected neo-fascist President, an admirer of the military regime, was elected with the slogan “Brazil above everything, God above all.”
After Medici came to power, Flusser lost several students to the oppression, young men and women who disappeared from his courses never to be seen again. Shortly after, once the opportunity arose, Flusser and his wife left Brazil for Europe, eventually settling in Robion, in southeastern France, where he wrote some of his most famous works during the 80s. Before departing Brazil, Flusser wanted to leave a series of “think pieces” to provoke reflection, but in a veiled allegorical style—the result was this series entitled Ground Zero, perhaps in reference to endings and new beginnings.
I have been translating Flusser’s work since 2010 and next year marks not only ten years since I started this journey, having never translated a book before, but also the centenary of Flusser’s birth. His work has taken me across the Atlantic several times and to several different countries, where I have met so many interesting people and made many friends. Flusser’s work has become a conductor for much of what has happened in my life over the last ten years, and I continue to translate his work as an act of restitution, in the hope that it may also reach others in as many parts of the globe as possible.
Today, Brazil (and the world) is once again swinging to the right, and Flusser, a relentless critic of authority (political or intellectual), becomes a helpful guide in this coming age of unreason.
São Paulo, 2019
1. THE BEGINNING
Whoever publishes articles in a newspaper does so seeking the following:
The last two reasons are necessarily linked: fame is never achieved because the quest is insatiable, and the economic aspect can be better pursued through more appropriate activities. Therefore, the true reason for whoever publishes (reasons 1 to 3) could be referred to as “engagement.”
Those who seek to change the world believe in two things: that the world is not how it should be, and that they know how the world should be. (Both are dubious beliefs.) Therefore, they want to turn the world into what it should be, and whatever should be, must be. Whoever creates works wants to leave the world a trace of their passing through it, so as not to have lived in vain and not to be forgotten after death. Those who seek answers do not live only for themselves, but also for others. This is the climate in which articles are published.
In order for such engagement to partly reach its goal, those who publish must not only take responsibility for their ideas but also ensure that these ideas concern their readers. That is: the writer must respect the readers. They, in turn, should be open to the ideas that are proposed by the writer. Such is the minimum situation for a successful publication. If one or more readers react to the ideas proposed, the optimum situation will have been reached.
I intend, in the following articles, to focus on some non-obvious aspects of the things that surround us. The aim is to contribute to our orientation within a complex and rapidly changing world. Such orientation, however difficult, is necessary despite the danger of losing ourselves in the world and of losing the world. I thank the Folha de São Paulo newspaper, for agreeing to be the vehicle for such a task. And I challenge some of the readers to collaborate with the effort.
2. COMPLICATED SITUATIONS
The world is complicated, and humanity, forced to live in it, has always known this. The complications of the world have always been a problem. There have always been people who sought the simple, supposedly hidden deep in the complicated (let’s call such people “romantic”) and others who sought to further complicate things, to develop them (let’s call them “progressive”). But currently a new problem has arisen. Not of the complicated world but the problem of complexity itself. A whole new discipline, cybernetics, deals with complex systems. Information theory seeks to establish an intimate connection between information and complexity. Structuralism is a way of looking at things embedded in complex structures. The problem of complexity arose, of course, because the world we live in is becoming overly complicated. Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, but not only thanks to it, people want to orient themselves in the world, and in order to do so, raise the problem of complexity.
One of the findings about complexity is this: The more complicated a system, the more fragile. The human body, being more complicated, is more fragile than a carbon crystal. And when it reaches a certain stage of complexity (a critical stage), the system explodes to make way for simpler but possibly more “advanced” systems. Cretaceous reptiles were more complicated than mammals and birds. Several systems are currently in crisis in this regard. They have reached a stage of complexity that allows us to predict their disappearance. Although it does not allow predicting which systems will take their places. One of these systems is for example the State (capitalized, like God). It is not the capitalist or socialist or neocapitalist State that is in crisis. The State tout court is in crisis because it is reaching the maximum complexity it can handle. An observation of the scene, however superficial, proves it.
Complexity makes it difficult to absorb unforeseen factors, and amplifies the effects of disturbances throughout the system. A traffic accident in Manhattan at the beginning of the century (a fallen horse) disrupts traffic on that street, which is resolved by eliminating the horse. A traffic accident in present-day Manhattan (a traffic jam in a tunnel) calls into question all life throughout New York and neighbouring states, and its solution is difficult, time consuming and costly. Failures in the power or water supply system could endanger the lives of millions, as evidenced by the recent power outage on the east coast of the United States. Strikes, acts of piracy, and other once marginal disturbances now threaten the whole system.
The State has been programmed as a complex system to respond to disturbances by further complicating matters. Its legislative and executive “glands” secrete torrents of rules (traffic, pricing, keeping the order) to lubricate the places of friction. Thus a vicious circle is established to which the “complications of complexity” result in greater complexity. The result would be comical were it not desperately dangerous. The State invests huge sums to avoid classic crimes (murders, etc.), when the biggest killer is State-supported traffic (car factories). The young protest against classic genocide (wars), and the State finances the sources of current genocide (pollution in every way). The United States and the Soviet Union are engaged in the arms race (including ballistic defence), the cost of which involves figures that could alter the well-being of humankind, no matter which American or Russian city may be comfortably destroyed by bombs imported inside travellers’ suitcases. These absurd examples can easily be multiplied. The State was created, they say, to make life more liveable. But the more complex it is, the more unbearable it becomes.
Thus, the State seems to be a doomed system. Hard to imagine how it will be overcome. The fantasies of classic anarchists are obviously not a good model. But there are symptoms in youth movements in “developed” countries that seem to point vaguely in the direction in which such overcoming may be glimpsed. This is one of the most important aspects of today’s radical modifications. I hope it succeeds, before the States bury us in their rubble.
10. PARK GAZE
Scene: European City Park. Time: Sunny Afternoon. Dramatis Personae: Bourgeois sitting on chairs and benches. Plot: People pass by unnoticed by the seated. How is this possible? Thus: The passer-by appears in the field of vision of the seated and causes the following reactions: the gaze deviates and fixes on a sparrow, or the gaze crosses the passer-by and makes him transparent, or the gaze becomes empty and the passer-by seems like an abyss. There is a fourth variant of this annihilation theme: the unaware gaze of the seated intersects with the gaze of the passer-by and plummets into the lap of the seated.
There are several types of gaze: the loving one that loses itself in the other; the greedy one that surrounds the other; the hateful one that penetrates the other; the fearful one that spies on the other. These different gazes are directed towards the other. And there are also the surprising, admiring, appreciating, amusing, interesting, and examining gazes. These are gazes that turn the other into a thing. The gaze towards the other recognizes the other as a partner. The objectifying gaze seeks to know the other in order to use him. The park gaze annihilates the other.
Some claim that the gaze towards the other is currently scarce, and that the objectifying gaze is predominant. This is explainable. The rapid progress of the human sciences (anthropology, psychology, economics, sociology, psychopharmacology) increases our knowledge of the human and hinders our recognition of the human as an other. We can always better manipulate people (through the media, by managing the economy and politics, and through drugs), and as a result we always manage to have less dialogue with others. Our loneliness increases, we can no longer gaze towards each other.
But the park gaze is still different. It annihilates the other without resorting to annihilation fields. Those sitting in the park do not admit that the other exists, not even as a thing. The sitter contemplates the void. He is seated beyond history, beyond humanism; perhaps within the “fullness of time.” The parks of European cities are, in this curious sense, heavens. Those seated in them are sitting in the stillness of time, in eternity; each inside their individual bubble, emanating an inhuman coldness. This is “post-history,” the goal of development as a whole.
If anyone who passes through the park is Brazilian, they will thank God (or His several current equivalents) for being “underdeveloped.”
Humans are beings whose dignity lies in the negation of the surrounding world, and in their efforts to change it. They do not accept the given: for every new generation the deeds of the previous one are given; hence, the so-called “generation gap.” The young people worthy of such a name therefore have the impression that it is with them that everything will change, that they will be the great modifiers. Hindsight proves that such an impression is usually a mistake. And “what goes around comes around” is usually the borderline that floats above humanity. Usually, but not always, there are incisive generations. It may be that the current new generation is one of these.
Not because the new generation is exceptionally gifted, far from it. Those born after World War II have so far produced nothing to compare with the achievements (scientific, artistic, or social) accomplished until the 1940s by the preceding generation. (Not to compare them with exceptional generations such as those born in the mid-fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.) Therefore, it is not because they are exceptionally gifted that the new generation can change everything, but because their predecessors are exceptionally depleted, and therefore mutable. The new generation was born in a world that revolves through change. The models of life and behaviour are currently depleted and cannot remain in force.
So the traditional roles of the generations are now curiously reversed. It is not the old generation that imposes its models on the new; it is the new generation that resists the imposition by the old. It is the old generation that expects the new to propose models, and the new that incriminates the old for not offering them models. This is the essence of the famous decay of the patriarchy. Here is a generation gap for which we have not been prepared: parents refusing to take authority for models in which they have no faith (if they are honest), and their children blaming the parents for not giving them goals (if they are conscious). Symptom of the crisis we are going through.
Is this the end of patriarchy (effective since the Neolithic in one form or another)? Very likely. Is this the beginning of fraternity (which has been ineffective in the tricolour since the late-eighteenth century)? Possibly. But fraternity contains the danger of Big Brother, ominously pre-figured by Bonaparte. And there is yet another possibility: Is this the beginning of the matriarchy, in which television occupies the place of the devouring Great Mother? The evidence seems to point in the direction of the matriarchy. The new generation will decide (albeit problematically) which of these possibilities (and others) will be realized. Hopefully we, the “overcome,” will still be around to see what will happen.
A fundamental aspect of the current crisis is the modification of our attitude towards death. Undoubtedly: we will die. We know this not only for “objective” reasons. For example, by the ephemerality of the organs of our body. And not only by analogy with others. For example, because no one has reached the age of 200 years. But we know of our death thanks to a piece of immediate knowledge. Namely: the urgency with which we experience every moment due to the knowledge of the limitation of our time. But the fact we will die does not necessarily mean everyone should always die. The question: “Is death necessary?” is currently open for the first time.
Of course, immortality only makes sense if it is of the body. Even the religions know this. “In my flesh, I will see God,” for if it is not in my flesh, it will not be I who shall see God. For the first time, the immortality of the body becomes significantly debatable. A problem can only be discussed “significantly” if there are theoretical methods for solving it. There are currently at least three theoretical methods to solve the problem of body immortality.
It is theoretically possible to gradually replace the worn-out organs of the body with others. The body becomes a timeless structure capable of absorbing its transient parts: immortality of the structure of every human body. It is theoretically possible to extract the memory from an old body (approximately: the brain), re-implant it into a new body (newborn), and repeat the feat indeterminately: immortality of one’s memory (of personality). It is possible theoretically to copy a certain body in the smallest detail, up to the level of atomic particles. The copy would be indistinguishable from the original one: immortality of the body as original, and unlimited multiplication of individual life. The third method even allows this: the copy can be made at a distance thanks to certain rays. If one wants to see a certain premiere, one does not have to go there; it is enough to make a photocopy of oneself at the speed of light and be beamed to such a premiere.
Great, there’s no need to die from now on. This does not imply that one has to live forever. One can die where, how and when one wants to. After overcoming death, true freedom will arise. It will be possible to affirm life because it will be equally possible to deny it. For now, suicide only hastens the inevitable. Suicide is a fake act. Henceforth it becomes a true act. Here is one aspect of our drama: to live in times of crisis. Not being able to witness an imaginable future: we will die, although death is not necessary.
27. HIGHLY EMOTIVE SERIES: 1. IRONY
It’s good not to confuse irony with comedy. Comedy is when I discover weaknesses in the strong. For example, when Napoleon falls off his horse. Irony is when I discover that the strong is weak. For example, that Napoleon lost at Waterloo just as he thought he had won the battle. That is why the comic is banal: it reveals what everyone already knows. But the ironic may not be trivial: it can reveal the ignored. And to say that humanity is comical is to say bullshit. (Because everyone knows that.) But to talk about the irony of fate, though a cliché, is not necessarily bullshit. (Because such revelation is always painful.)
Irony is a rhetorical method; it is a way of talking about things. (In Greek it means, “to talk in a veiled manner.”) There is “cheap” irony. This is when I speak in a veiled manner without need, or to deceive those who listen to me. “Cheap” irony is a method dear to demagogy, but there is also an irony that is so dear that it can cost an arm and a leg. It is not easy to distinguish between the two types. It requires careful listening.
The so-called “second romanticism” makes much use of irony. This was that generation of European bourgeoisie contemporary with the Restoration of the French Kingdom and the Holy Alliance in Vienna. Romantic irony demonstrates well how the method works: a double-edged sword, which, though drawn by romantics and romantically brandished, cuts romanticism into pieces—the death of romanticism. Irony might always be this: a weapon employed in that battle called “agony.”
Self-irony provides even better proof. The weak, in order to defend themselves from the strong, cuts themselves ironically into pieces, perhaps to show the strong how weak they are by oppressing the weak. Example: Jewish irony in Nazi time. “Jewish rowing boat sinks German cruiser,” and “German shepherd bitten by a Jewish loan shark.” Such are the situations that generate irony as a weapon of agony. Irony is not only the weapon of the weak, but also the weapon of the dying (in the gas chambers or the circus). The famous palm stretched high by the gladiators as they greet the Emperor: “The dying greet You!” Supreme irony.
And yet, irony is a weapon that can be liberating. Since it can show not only how weak the strong is but also how strong the weak is: another aspect of the ambivalence of irony. A Czech poet says: “No people have yet died while poets sing about them.” (I suppose such a poet is not currently being published in many copies in Prague.) Paraphrasing: “No people have yet died while they have jokes.” The spirit blows wherever it wants, and also ironically.
34. ECONOMY AND NEGOCIATIONS
“Economy” in Greek means “rules for farmers,” and “negotiation” in Latin means, “lost leisure.” Both meanings are currently forgotten, which is a pity. This is how the ancients conceived of economics: an endless doing and undoing in an eternal circle. For example: sowing to reap, reaping to eat, eating to digest, and digesting to fertilize the sowed. For the ancients, an economic life was the life of slaves. Today the best example of this is the life of the indentured housewife: tidying and untidying, cooking and washing dishes.
Here’s how the ancients conceived of the world of negotiations: making in order to exchange the product for something made by someone else. For example, making a pair of shoes, taking them to the market, exposing them, offering them, and exchanging them for a length of cloth (or money). For the ancients, the life of negotiations was the life of artisans and artists. Currently, the best example of this is the life of the market seller: life in freedom.
There can be no market seller without a housewife. Not just because the housewife buys at the market, but also mainly because the market seller can’t leave home to go to the market without someone cooking and tidying. Economics is the basis for negotiations, and slavery is the basis of freedom. To abolish economy would be to end negotiation, and to abolish slavery would be to end freedom. Or: where no one wants to live economically, everyone lives economically, and where no one wants to be a slave, everyone is a slave. The economy is justified only if it makes it possible to negotiate, and slavery is justified only if it makes freedom possible. That’s how the ancients saw the issue.
But that is not all. The slave is justified only because they make the negotiator possible, but the negotiator is justified only because they make it possible for some to do absolutely nothing. The negotiator makes it possible for some, having accumulated profits, to stare at nothing in absolute leisure. Such a stare the ancients called “Theory.” Leisured theory is possible for some because others lose their leisure negotiating, and they can negotiate because others toil in the economy. To work so that others may negotiate, and to negotiate so that others may have leisure: this was the ideal social organization for the ancients.
We have inverted the order: for us to have leisure (“Theory”) is justified only if such theory is applicable in the making of something, therefore, negotiable. And to negotiate is justified only if the negotiated can be economically consumed. From the standpoint of the ancients, we have a slave mentality. It’s good to remember that.
42. BEASTS 2: CHIMPANZEES
Look at a chimpanzee in a caged zoo: it smokes a cigarette, rides a bicycle, and eats with a knife and fork. This would be a highly educational spectacle for elementary students, were it not for the chimpanzee sometimes assuming downright obscene positions. But it may be visited by primary school pupils notwithstanding this, as both students and teachers pretend not to know the meanings of such positions: innocence visiting innocence, a moving spectacle.
Who is the chimpanzee, after all? It is our indirect ancestor (let’s say: Great-uncle), and our closest relative outside the human race. Eating chimpanzee meat would be practically cannibalism, and in a restaurant that included on its menu roasted chimpanzee hands would incur religious difficulties. Although the immortal soul is the prerogative of our species (according to the teaching of Western religions), the facial expressions of the chimpanzee expresses something very similar to the soul, much more similar than the bovine expression (if the Hindus who perchance read this article would excuse me). Undoubtedly, such resemblance is deeply disturbing.
This is disturbing in two ways: in retrospect, and in the sense that it points to the future. Retrospectively the resemblance disturbs because it illustrates what we once were, and how, strictly speaking, little has changed since we “evolved.” Each of us has our little chimpanzee very close to the beautiful surface we exhibit to the world. And the resemblance disturbs even more if we consider the future. Are we, perhaps, chimpanzees of a future species, and will we be caged for the delights of future primary school superhumans? Will we do set theory, moral philosophy, concrete art, and other primitive poses to amuse the children of a more evolved species; our late offspring?
The disturbance is very fair. Our evolved offspring may not be as late as we think. Who knows, maybe it already exists? Who knows, perhaps our species has already caused the “genetic” leap and superbeings are already walking among us, without us realizing it? Are not the various cyber machines the Adams and Eves of an entire evolution that will overcome the human species? Don’t we talk about “third generation” computers? Who knows, maybe we already live, without fully knowing it, in a zoo, and only function for the sake of such monsters and pocket monsters? No doubt: good question.
Take a good look at the caged chimpanzee: a radiant example of a participant of consumer society—an example of our future?