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Cultural Studies

On Flusser in Artforum

by Frank G. Karioris

In the present moment, it seems that we may have moved backwards; if not chronologically or in a sense of ‘progress’, then in relation to our ability to recognize dialogue. For dialogue requires not simply two individuals speaking, but that they speak with each other in voices and languages that they each understand. Stepping into this space in recent years has been a number of translations and reissues of the Czech-Brazilian theorist Vilém Flusser. Not only is Flusser a masterful theorist of exactly how this process happens – or is made to happen, or disallowed from happening – but he is a lived-in action theorist, stemming back to theoria and its view of view, viewing, and viewpoints. The most recent volume in the series of releases – Artforum // Essays – while not a culmination of his theory per se, is a demonstration of it in action.

The overarching goal is to address, and partly undo, the division between science and art, doing so not by adding one to the other (as some do), but by trying to understand what it is that defines each and, through this, bring them into connection rather than simply conversation. It is what might be called ‘interdisciplinarity’ today, though that word does no justice to the fluid theorizing Flusser engages in and the sources brought to bear in each column.

Originally published in, and written as columns for, the influential and long-standing cultural magazine Artforum between 1986 and 1992, each chapter elaborates or ruminates on a theme related to Flusser’s wider oeuvre. His column or series in Artforum is titled, in loving fashion, ‘Curie’s Children’. They are not only (Marie) Curie’s children, but, it would seem, his own – taking after Marie Curie’s children, one of whom (like her parents) won a Nobel Prize. Chapters overlap, intertwine, and repeat. Rather than anything else, this comes across as a natural product of exploration and questioning. At various points throughout the volume he asks questions, and then follows it up by saying a variant of ‘but that’s not a good question’.

These children are divided into those which were originally published in Artforum, and those that were written for the column but never published. Almost all of the columns, each between eight and twelve pages, are titled “On…”, hinting at the tentative, but pointed, meandering planned. Those published are divided nearly in twain between more stand-alone essays, and the series ‘On Science [I-III]’ and ‘On Discovery [I-VI]”. Ranging from parabiological treatises on cows and a form of bee that lives off new writing to expositions on why humans have children, it is a challenge to place the book inside a singular box. This, though, is part and parcel of the point for Flusser. In opening these questions, we are able to undergo a creative or artistic element, and, as such, expand beyond simply just replicative creation towards the transcendental.

This process is also entailed as the process by which writing comes to be superseded by a new form of communication – at various points he suggests images and colors as possible alternatives. This fits into his question-titled book Does Writing Have a Future? (1987). The point of this is that language-as-words delimits the possible sets of communication between us and that to move further (or closer) into intersubjectivity requires a form of communication beyond words and literature (“which means ‘a lot of letters’” [p. 217] or “‘a set of letters’” [p. 275]).

It must be noted that, befitting its original addressee Artforum, the book is aesthetically attractive without falling into banality. In this sense, it fits perfectly into Metaflux’s overall catalogue. Filled with newly chosen pieces of art taken from the pages of Artforum, they help not only situate the volume historically into its context (aesthetically, politically, socially), but also assist in grappling with the plurality of space that images can – as Flusser argues throughout – communicate with, through, and from.

Having read this work, one cannot help but think. In this way, what is important is not so much what was said, but that the essays and thinking drive one out into an open field of thought. Flusser reminds us, both literally and in text, that philosophy – while related to logic (and logos, words) – is driven and derived from the Greek root word philia – a love of/for/between friends. Friends must love one another, but they must also question, criticize, and chastise. For, in the sense laid down by Aristotle, true friends – of which there are few – are another of our-self. It seems that Flusser, successfully or not, sought to engage the reader as friends, and we should undertake that task with him as such.

In this way, one might draw Flusser into conversation with the inimitable Walter Benjamin. Separated by a generation, these two fit into each other in nearly perplexing ways. Both migrants who found their academic prospects unfulfilled and hindered. Both of whom decried the limitations of form, genre, and most especially what we now call ‘discipline’. In reading this volume, it is difficult to say whether one agrees with Flusser or not, something my good friend has always said of Benjamin as well. Yet the aim of these authors seems not so much to convince the reader, but rather to elicit questions from them. As Flusser says, “Knowing better, then, is distinguishing between better questions” (p. 63). Knowledge is not itself the object, but a process into which inquiry possibilities represent that which is learned. It is here that Flusser – and this book – make their impact. And it is this which makes it theory, shedding light not on an answer, but a view.

Vilém Flusser: Artforum // Essays.
Edited by Martha Schwendener
ISBN: 978-0993327230
Price: GBP 22.95
London, Metaflux Publishing, 2017, 338pp., Paperback.

Frank G. Karioris is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Critical Gender Studies at the American University of Central Asia. Their research focuses on issues of body, masculinity, and education.

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