The future, death, and recoding.

It’s hard to get rid of an oxford comma. Books, even more so. Vilem Flusser writes in his harbinger-of-doom for writing:

We are book-worms, being opposed to automated apparatuses and green forests, not out of bibliophilia–which today registers as necrophilia–but out of an engagement with historical freedom. This, our “worm-like feeling,” this sense of nourishing ourselves on corpses (books) , explains our horror of dispensing with books.

Does Writing Have a future? p. 102

Flusser suggests that books provide freedoms that forests (which he also ties, in the progress of communication, to primitiveness, images and the magical) do not provide. Neither can it engage the coming of the digital, which is somehow both images, but also something completely new. Whereas text could criticize images, it cannot engage with the digital because:

….Digital codes synthesize things that have already been fully criticized, fully calculated….The old criticism, this dismantling of solid things, would be lost in the gaps between intervals, in nothingness….A completely different critical method is required, one that is only approximately named “system analysis.”  For this, alphabetic thinking is completely useless.

Does Writing Have a Future? p. 152.

As a result:

But isn’t the feeling of a knife’s edge exactly what is responsible for what we call freedom?….To those of us who spell things out, the current transition from the alphabet to the new looks like a dangerous step on a ridge between abysses. It may seem like a pleasant stroll to our grandchildren, but we are not our grandchildren, who will learn the new with ease in kindergarten.

Does Writing Have a Future? p. 155.

This was written in 1987, and while the blurb on the back of the translation (U. of Minnesota Press, 2011) would have us believe that Flusser makes a convincing argument that “the art of writing will not so much disappear but rather evolve into new kinds of thought and expression” (back cover) it’s clear that Flusser thinks anything but that. He likens the transition less to dialectical models and more to Kuhnian paradigm shifts (150). The alphabetic will be recoded in an undefined “new” which will obliterate it. Whoever blurbed the book thinks this is a good thing, while Flusser sees it as an apocalyptic inevitability on par with “the singularity.” Such is the solemn deathcult of technologists.

In the argument he makes is an undercurrent of coming to grips with great fears, and Flusser’s prognostication is not our own. What is missing from  Does Writing Have a Future? is people. Between the forests, the alphabet, and the digital, Flusser writes out all of humanity. Perhaps he’s done with us, but we’re not done yet. We can choose and inhabit any of those worlds (trees alphabet, the “new”), and often all three at the same time. There’s no freedom in being made to walk on Flusser’s knife-edge. It’s an image that rings out from W. Somerset Maugham and a Bill Murray movie: walking the razor’s edge is treacherous and hurtful, and at the end, it could make everything OK. There’s not much freedom to be found there. Just because he felt he had no choice doesn’t mean we have to do the same.

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