The Future of Writing

01Jan13

Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Future of Writing’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 63-69

[originally written, 1983-4]

p.63

Writing is an important gesture, because it both articulates and produces that state of mind which is called “historical consciousness.” History began with the invention of writing,not for the banal reason often advanced that written texts allows us to reconstruct the past, but for the more pertinent reason that the world is not perceived as a process, “historically,” unless one signifies it by successive symbols, by writing.

The difference between prehistory and history is not that we have written documents that permit us to read the latter, but that during history there are literate men who experience, understand, and evaluate the world as a “becoming,” whereas in prehistory no such existential attitude is possible.

p.63-64

If one examines certain Mesopotamian tiles, one can see that the original purpose of writing was to facilitate the deciphering of images.

p.64

It may be shown through text analysis that the original purpose of writing, namely, the transcoding of two-dimensional codes into a single dimension, is still there: every text, even a very abstract one, means, in the last analysis, an image.

The translation from surface into line implies a radical change of meaning. The eye that deciphers an image scans the surface, and it thus establishes reversible relations between the elements of the image.

The reversibility of relations that prevails within the image characterizes the world for those who use images for the understanding of the world, who “imagine” it. For them, all the things in the world are related to each other in such a reversible way, and their world is structured by “eternal return.”

In such a world, circular time orders all things, “assigns them their just place,” and if a thing is displaced it will be readjusted by time itself.

In sum: the “imagined” world is the world of myth, of magic, the prehistoric world.

The eye that deciphers a text follows its lines, and thus establishes the univocal relation of a chain between the elements of which the text is composed. Those who use texts to understand the world, those who “conceive” it, mean a world with a linear structure. Everything in such a world follows from something, time flows irreversibly from the past toward the future, each instant lost is lost forever, and there is no repetition.

p.65

In sum: the “conceived” world is the world of the religions  of salvation, of political commitment, of science, and of technology – the historical world.

Images are mediations between man and his world, a world that has become inaccessible to him immediately.

One must learn how to decipher these images, one must learn the conventions that give them their meaning, and one may commit mistakes.

The “imagination” that produces road maps is not the same as the “imagination” that produces cave paintings and projections. Explaining images with the help of texts may therefore be useful.

But there is another, and more profound, reason for the invention of writing and of historical consciousness. There is in images, as in all mediations, a curious inherent dialectic. The purpose of images is to mean the world, but they may become opaque to the world and cover it, even substitute for it.

No longer are such images tools, but man himself has become a tool of his own tools; he “adores” the images he himself has produced. It is against this idolatry of images, as a therapy against this double alienation, that writing was invented.

Writing, historical consciousness, linear, rational though were invented to save humankind from “ideologies,” from hallucinatory imagination.

p.66

For most of its course, historical consciousness was the privilege of a small elite, while the vast majority continued to lead a prehistoric, magico-mythical existence. This was so because texts were rare and expensive, and literacy the privilege of a class of scribes and literati. The invention of printing cracked this clerical case open, and it made historical consciousness accessible for the rising bourgeoisie, but it was only during the industrial revolution and through the public primary school system that literacy and historical consciousness can be said to have become common in the industrialized countries. But almost immediately, a new kind of image, the photograph was invented, which began to threaten the supremacy of writing, and it now looks as if the days of historical, rational conceptual thinking were numbered, and as if we were approaching a new type of magico-mythical age, a posthistorical image culture.

The reason why rational, conceptual thinking (and acting) is an exceptional form of existence, why history seems to be a brief interlude within the ageless “eternal return” of myth and magic, is that writing, just like images, is torn by an internal dialectic, and that this dialectic takes a more pernicious aspect in writing than it does even in image making. The purpose of writing is to mean, to explain images, but texts may become opaque, unimaginable, and they then constitute barriers between man and the world. The vectors of meaning of such texts turn around and point at their authors, instead of pointing at the world.

It is against the threatening rise of formal rationalism, of a meaningless existence amid speculative, opaque explanations, that the rise of the new image culture must be seen.

p.67

The new type of images are unlike their prehistoric predecessors in that they are themselves products of texts, and in that they feed on texts. They are products of history.

The essential difference between a TV program and a tapestry is not (as one might believe) that the one moves and talks while the other stands still and is mute, but that the TV program is the result of scientific theories (texts) and that it needs texts (for instance, telegrams) for it to function.

The easiest way to imagine the future of writing, if the present trend toward a culture of techno-images goes on, is to imagine culture as a gigantic transcoder from text to image.

All texts will flow into that box (news about events, theoretical comments about them, scientific papers, poetry, philosophical speculations), and they will come out again as images (films, TV programs,photographic pictures): which is to say that history will flow into the box, and that it will come out of it under the form of myth and magic.

In sum,  the future of writing is to write pretexts for programs while believing one is writing for utopia.

p.68

History may be said to be the attempt to submit imagination to the criticism of reason. Texts are meant to be critiques of images, and writing, as a code, is an analysis of surfaces into lines. Therefore, during history, imagination was the source of reason: the stronger the imagination,the greater the challenge of critical reason, and rich images permit more powerful linear explanation.

TV programs are not, of course, the most impressive examples of what happens when reason betrays itself and serves imagination. Nazism is a better illustration.

p.69

At present, the purpose of writing is to explain techno-images, and the task of reason is to criticize imagination.

To write meant, in the past, to render opaque images transparent for the texts they are hiding. In other words, reason, in the past, meant analysis of myths, and in the future it will mean de-idologization.

It is perfectly possible that the general trend toward techno-images will become irresistible, and that reason will degenerate into the planning of programs – that to write will mean not to make “grams” but “programs” and that all texts will become pretexts.

Thus, in fact, we may discern, at present, two possible futures of writing: it will either become a critique of techno-imagination (which means an unmasking of the ideologies hiding behind a technical progress that has become autonomous of human decisions) or it will become the production of pretexts for the techno-imagination (a planning for that technical progress). In the first alternative, the future will be unimaginable by definition. In the second,history in the strict sense of that term will come to an end, and we may easily imagine what will follow: the eternal return of life in an apparatus that progresses by its own inertia.

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