Monday, June 15, 2015

Some Things That Fly There Be

One generally accepted talent belonging to an artist is the ability to clearly express what is seen, but a different, less commonly acknowledged, and rarer talent needing development and refinement is the ability not to express what is not seen.  Gertrude Stein writes about Picasso’s adventurous struggle with the latter (which successfully and specifically was his gateway to Cubism) and what generally separates and distinguishes great artists from the so very many, many good ones.

As Agnes Martin puts it:  “The adventurous state of mind is a high house.” In the past month my adventurous state of mind has taken me to Paris, the Andes jungle, the Vatican, Japan, Tucson, the Midwest USA, New Mexico, Florida, and Chinatown.  I’ve been to the future, and as far back in time as what is regarded as the 15th Century. My companions and guides were Henry and Alejo and Barbara and Willa and the two Rays and Zora and Franz and Vilem.  And, although I was in a high house the whole time, I never left home.  Or, as Emily Dickinson wrote:  “Some things that fly there be,--”.

Although my research among philosophers is primarily for ideas about the individual and the ultimate liberty, the liberty to die, there’s lots of other interesting stuff on the way there, and the “death” of books, writing, etc. at the hands of incessant and unrelenting digital entertainment is frequently the subject of much (of what remains in) public, print discourse.  I’ll never be sufficiently astonished at how, in 1953, Ray Bradbury was discussing the effects of screens and non-stop reality t.v. and computer technology upon our intellect---the end of the written word, such a hot topic in the intellectual journals today.  And, as I happily discovered, Vilem Flusser is another entrant into that very classy field, another one of those things that fly.  Philosopher and media critic for more than three decades (just not based in a popular media core city) Flusser was a Prague-born citizen of Brazil who wrote, in several languages that are not English, about a post-book, post-printed page culture.  What is almost a (speculative) given today he was proclaiming decades ago:  “Print-based thought is about to be overhauled.”

He first identifies the factions involved in the transition:  “We must accept that we are condemned on the basis of our perceptual organs and our central nervous systems, to live in a least two realities that cannot be unified:  in the auditory, one of letters, and in the visual, one of numbers.”

Flusser locates this crossroads using linear “history” to represent writing and reading as we’ve known it up until now, and non-linear “apparatuses” to represent screens, devices such as tablets, smart phones, etc.  “Scriptwriters stand at the end of history and the beginning of apparatuses,” he writes by way of example.

That “two realities” conflict (at worst) or paradox (at best) has us up to our eyeballs in the visual, in the numbers, in the digitalia, and while I can’t find a hard and fast opinion by Flusser as to whether this is a good thing or bad, or detect a even a need to make such a declaration (there are plenty of other fish in that barrel), he is clear about the contest between letters (auditory) vs. numbers (visual), about what we are already experiencing and what we still can come to expect.

Flusser takes his survey back to the stylus as evidence for the (disappearing) inscription mode, but my first reading (interpretation subject to change) prompts me to think he is more on the money than he realizes when he calls the Gutenberg-centric print book “an intermediate stage.”  It seems to me digital representation pole vaults from stylus inscription on papyrus up and over to electric inscription in plasma screen.  Or maybe Flusser is subtly signifying that in a remark which I took as a throw-away joke--- “Progress is becoming archaic…”.  (I am learning, at least when it comes to philosophers, nothing is throw-away.  Thus, Nietzsche.)

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