Exile and Creativity

01Apr13

Flusser, Vilem. ‘Exile and Creativity’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 104-109 [1984]

p.104

In exile, everything is unusual. Exile is an ocean of chaotic information.

In it the lack of redundancy does not allow the flood of information to be received as meaningful messages. Because it is unusual, exile is unlivable. One must transform the information whizzing around into meaningful messages to make it livable. One must “process” the data. It is a question of survival: if one fails to transform the data, one is engulfed by the waves of exile. Data transformation is a synonym for creation. The expelled must be creative if he does not want to go to the dogs.

[Flusser’s hypothesis] proposes a positive assessment of expulsion.

p.105

For it seems – according to this hypothesis – that those people who want to “help” the expelled to become ordinary again are, in fact, engaged in reeling him back into their ordinariness. This is an informative assumption, because it forces us to think about what is usual.

The assumption does not justify the expellers, but rather, it exposes the vulgarity of the expellers: the expelled were bothersome factors who were expelled to make the surroundings even more ordinary than before. Indeed, this assumption leaves the following question to our discretion: Even without intending to do so, have the expellers not done to expelled a service?

I use the word expelled  rather than refugees or emigrantsto bring the totality of the problem before our eyes.

We find ourselves in a period of expulsion. If one values this situation positively, the future will appear a little less dark.

This essay has been written by one who has been expelled not only many times, but also in a number of different ways. Thus, it comes from one who knows the suffering that characterizes every form of exile. Also, the shadow that this sort of suffering casts and for which the German language has coined the word Heimweh (“homesickness”). Nevertheless – or perhaps out of spite – this essay will praise expulsion.

Habit is like a cotton blanket. It covers up all the sharp edges, and it dampens all noises. It is unaesthetic (from aisthesthai – perception), because it prevents bits of information from being perceived, as edges or noises. Because habit screens perceptions, because it anaesthetizes, it is considered comfortable. As comfy. Habit makes everything nice and quiet.

Every comfortable surrounding is pretty, and this prettiness is one of the sources of love for the fatherland. (Which, indeed, confuses prettiness with beauty.)

If the cotton blanket of habit is pulled back, one discovers things. Everything becomes unusual, monstrous, in the true sense of the world un-settling. To understand this it is quite enough to look at one’s right hand with all its finger movements from the perspective of a Martian: an octupus-like monstrosity.

The Greeks called this “discovering” of the covered up aletheia, a word that we translate as “truth.”

It is not as if we could actually be expelled from our right hand, unless of course, we let it be amputated. Thus, when we discover how monstrous our bodily condition is, it is owning to our strange ability to expel our body from our thoughts.

pp.105-106

An exile as radical as this cannot be maintained for long: we are overcome with an irresistible homesickness for our own beautiful bodies, and we reimmigrate.

p.106

Yet, this example of an extreme form of exile is instructive: For the expelled, it is almost as if he has been expelled from his own body. As if he was out of his mind. Even the usual things that he takes into exile are creepy. Everything around him becomes sharp and noisy. He is driven to discovery, to truth.

In habit, only change is perceived; in exile, everything is perceived as if in the process of change.

In exile, where the blanket of habit has been pulled back, he becomes a revolutionary, if only because it enables him to live there. Thus, the suspicion that confronts the expelled in his New Land is completely justified. His advent in the New Land breaks with the usual and threatens its prettiness.

p.107

The expelled are uprooted people who attempt to uproot everything around themselves, to establish roots. They do it spontaneously, simply because they are expelled.

Perhaps one can observe it when one tries to transplant trees. It can happen that the expelled becomes conscious of the vegetable, almost vegetative aspect of his exile; that he uncovers that the human being is not a tree; and that perhaps human dignity consists in not having roots – that a man first becomes a human being when he hacks of the vegetable roots that bind him. In German, there is the hateful word Luftmensch, a careless “man with his head in the air.” The expelled may discover that air and spirit are closely related terms and that therefore  Luftmensch essentially signifies human being.

This sort of discovery is a dialectical change in the relationship between expelled and expeller. Before this discovery, the expeller is the active pole and the expelled is the passive pole. After this discovery, the expeller is the victim and the expelled is the perpetrator.

This is the discovery that history is made by the expelled, not the expellers. The Jews are not part of Nazi history, the Nazis are part of Jewish history. The grandparents are not part of our biography; the grandchildren are part of our biography. We are not part of the history of automatic apparatuses; the apparatuses are part of our history.

And, the more radically the Nazis, the grandchildren and the apparatuses have driven us into exile, the more we make history: the better we transcend.

But this is not the decisive part of the discovery that we are not trees – that the uprooted make history. Instead, the decisive part of it is to discover how tiresome it is not to establish new roots.

After all, habit is merely a cotton blanket that covers up everything. It is also a mud bath where it is nice to wallow. Homesickness is a nostalgie de la boue, and one can make oneself comfortable anywhere, even in exile.

The discovery that we are not trees challenges the expelled to struggle constantly against the seduction pleasures of the mud bath. To continue to experience expulsion, which is to say: to allow oneself to be expelled again and again.

p.108

The discovery of human dignity as uprootedness seems to reduce one’s freedom to the mere right to come and go as one pleases. The right of the spirit to drift from one place to another.

But, in reality, the question of freedom leads us to the question: Is it possible to allow oneself to want to be driven? Is there not a contradiction between “allowing” and “wanting”?

Thus, the question of freedom is not the question of coming and going, but rather of remaining a stranger. Different from others.

[…] the production of new information (creating) depends on the synthesis of previous information. Such a synthesis consists in the exchange of information, just as it might be stored in one singular memory or in multiple memories. Thus, with respect to creating, one can speak of a dialectical process where the dialogue is either “internal” or “external”.

The advent of the expelled in exile leads to “external” dialogues. This spontaneously causes an industrious creativity in the vicinity of the expelled. He is a catalyst for the synthesis of new information. If, however, he becomes aware of his uprootedness as his dignity, then an “internal” dialogue begins within himself; which is to say, an exchange between the information he has brought with him, and an entire ocean with waves of information that toss around him in exile.

The objective is the creation of meaning between the imported information and the chaos that surrounds him. If these “external” and “internal” dialogues are harmonized with each other, they transform in a creative manner not only the world, but also the original natives and the expelled.

This is what I meant when I said what freedom means for the expelled: the freedom to remain a stranger, different from the others. It is the freedom to change oneself and others as well.

The expelled is the Other of others. Which is to say, he is other for the others, and the others are other for him.

In this manner, he is able to “identify.” His advent in exile allows the original natives to uncover that they are unable to “identify” without him.

p.109

For the expelled threatens the “particular nature” of the original natives; his strangeness calls them into question. But, even such a polemical dialogue is creative; for it leads to the synthesis of new information. Exile, no matter what form it takes, is a breeding ground for creative activity, for the new.

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