Janos Sugar on Fri, 14 Mar 97 17:34 MET

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nettime: Vilém Flusser on Progress

With this Flusser text we would like to pay tribute to the philosopher who
died in 91', and in whose honor the annual Flusser conference is held.
The Sixth Annual Flusser conference will take place in Budapest on the 16.
and 17. March of this year organized in a cooperation of the Soros Center
for Culture and Communication (C3), the Budapest Kunsthalle and the
Budapest Goethe Institute.
Flusser was invited to Hungary in 90 for *the Media Were with Us - the Role
of the Television in the Rumanian Revolution conference*, organized in a
cooperation between Soros Center of Contemporary Art, The Media Research
Foundation, and the Bela Balazs Film Studio. (Von Burokratie zur
Telekratie, Merve Verlag, ISBN 3-88396-077-2)

        Curie's Children

        Vilem Flusser on Progress

Our two yes look ahead (unless we turn our heads), and our two feet point
in the same direction (unless we do a step dance). This is why the idea
that our way of life follows a straight line seems reasonable. But if we
examine the matter more closely, we will find that progressive ideologies
are mistaken. If we imagine that we walk on a surface upon which our steps
could leave traces, we shall discover a pattern similar to the one that
underlies the traffic in an anthill. Our ways of life (be they American or
otherwise) are not straight lines that lead from birth to death; instead,
they are composed of crossings and recrossings.
Suppose that you have accepted the argument that sedentary people cannot be
progressive. You might now expect nomads like hunters, shepherds, or
visiting professors to follow the straight line. They seem to live in open
spaces, they are public figures, and thus are free to follow the tips of
their noses. However, you will find that this is not so. On their way
toward death they do not follow their noses but some purpose like deer,
sheep, or academic honors; this leads them astray, and their way of life
become distorted. Nomads are just as incapable of real progress as are
settlers, and erratic confusion seems to be our human lot. Unless, of
course, the term "progress" is given a different meaning.
There can be no doubt that to live means to walk toward death, because it
is a fact that to live is to move, and because there is no other direction
in which to move than toward extinction. Those who stay in bed and never
get up to try to deny this, but by doing so they prove why the rest of us
get up in the morning. If we did not expect to die there would be no hurry,
and we could stay in bed forever. Now on our way toward death we come up
against one obstacle after an other. The Latin word for obstacle is
"obiectum" and the Greek is "problema". On our way we come up against one
object after another, and those objects are problems. We overcome the
objects, we solve the problems one by one, and the sum total of this may be
called progress.
If by progress we mean accumulated problem solving, we are committed to a
curious position. For instance, the American way of life is considered more
progressive than the way of life of Australian aborigines, because
Americans have solved more problems than the aborigines have. The question
here is: Who counted the problems, an American, an Australian aborigine, or
some third party? Which reminds one of Darwin. Each and every species now
in existence is the most progressive of them all, because it has solved all
the problems that have stood in its way, which is why it has not (yet) been
extinguished. From its own point of view the aids virus is more progressive
than the human species, because it has survived all attempts to eliminate
it; it has solved all its problems. But, after all, this is not a very
satisfactory definition of progress.
Mozart's opera Don Giovanni offers a way out of this dilemma. Don Juan has
a purpose: the conquest of all the women in the world. As Leporello tells
us, 1003 women are the measure of Don Juan's progress toward his goal, and
he is a cultural hero in the West because he is so extraordinary
progressive. This is, by the way, the principle computers stand on. A
purpose is fed into them, and they approach it with a record breaking speed
by progressive additions. Don Juan is a mythical computer: out of 1003
sexemes (or sexels), he approaches progressively total sexual computation.
Thus Mozart's opera shows what progress has come to mean, and where it
Let us reconsider Don Juan's problem. He aims at conquering all the women
in the world. Logic tells us that instead of saying "all the women" we may
say class of "Women". Don Juan aims at conquering the Women. And his
strategy is called "induction".  He tries to get at the Women in general by
adding one special women after another, until the entire class of Women is
exhausted. This is not a very intelligent strategy, and progress in this
sense is not a very intelligent way of living. There is a better way to get
there. The Woman in general is contained in each and every special woman.
This is why each woman is a member of the class of Woman. He who has
conquered this "Woman-ness" hidden in every woman has achieved more than if
he had conquered all the woman in the world. And this proposes a different
meaning again of the term progress.
This may be put as follows: each and every object (problem) that I
encounter on my way contains a nucleus, a central point, that somehow
connects it to all the other problems in the world. If I could really solve
a single problem, I would have solved all the mysteries in the world.  The
reason why I cannot do so, why I cannot really solve even one problem, is
doubly complex. On the one hand, each object in the world is surrounded by
an infinity of points of view, and it can be exhausted - solved - only if
all those infinite points of view are applied to it. On the other hand, the
moment I assume one of those infinite points of view, the problem shows
itself to be my own projection, and it involves me. To give a very simple
example: let a drinking glass be my problem. It is surrounded by an
infinity of points of view, for instance that of chemistry, of the glass
market, of the history of Occidental art, of industrial production. I
cannot assume them all, because I shall die long before I have even begun
to jump from one to the other. But I know that if I could assume them all,
I could solve every problem in the world. So I take at least one point of
view, and I look at the drinking glass from my present position. It appears
to have a circular shape, but, of course, I know that this is only my own
projection. If I had looked sideways at the glass its shape would have been
elliptical, or it might have been a straight line. I am involved in the
problem of the drinking glass the moment I have assumed a point of view
with regard to it, and if I change my point of view it is myself who is
changing just as much as the drinking glass is.
This simple example was offered to show where Don Juan was mistaken. He
believed that it was possible to add one woman to another to get at the
Woman, and that this could be done without getting involved in the process.
And the result was that the Man of Stone ("il convitato di pietra") took
hold of him. It is the lack of involvement that was Don Juan's undoing. If
I want to solve the problem of the drinking glass, I get involved within
it, it swallows me up, I forget myself within it, and the nearer I get to
the center of the problem, the more I lose myself within it. This is the
true reason why I cannot really solve even a single problem: long before I
get near the center, I am no longer really there. This is true of the
drinking glass, as it is true of each and every problem, but with the Women
it is not only true but mysteriously sacred.
On my way I encounter a woman, and in this sense she is like the drinking
glass: an object, a problem. But as I approach her in my desire of her, she
herself approaches me, because I am, myself her problem. This mutual
encounter reveals the infinity of points of view that surrounds each one of
the two, and this may be called " recognition of each other", and a
lifetime is far too short to even begin to exhaust that recognition. (The
traditional name for this lifelong attempt for mutual recognition is
"love",  although that word may have become suspect.) Of course, this does
not solve any problem; long before the solution is reached, each one is
lost within the other, and thus has forgotten what he (and she) were after.
The purpose of this reflection on progress was to suggest that there is a
meaning to the term that may help us to understand why we do whatever we
do. To progress may not mean to advance, not to go from one thing to
another, but it may mean instead to return over and over again to very few
points, in an effort to get involved with them and thus to go ever deeper
into them. Of course this meaning of progress has always been the sign that
distinguishes greatness. Mozart comes back over and over again to the
problem of harmony, Van Gogh to the problem of color, Newton to the problem
of force over distances, Plato to the problem of form. And as they come
back to it over and over again, they progress. But the important thing
about this is the self-forgetting that marks that progress: this love, this
fidelity, this opening oneself up and letting oneself be swallowed.
We have computers at our disposal. These Don Juan-machines show what
progress means if understood as step-by-step problem solving. But we also
have photo cameras, which are tools for assuming points of view as they
surround objects. A photo camera progresses not by advancing from object to
object (if it does so it has betrayed the principle it stands on), but
revealing ever new aspects of one single object. A camera is a tool for a
phenomenological vision, and this whole reflection was intended to show
that progress may have a phenomenological meaning. We should take photo
cameras and not computers as models for progress. If we do so, we might
avoid - not death, of course, but the Man of Stone who is waiting for us,
and whom so many prophets of doom are predicting as the wages of progress.

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