I’m currently re-reading (and re-reading) the new English translation of Vilém Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis for the journal American Book Review. (The one under review, published by Atropos, comes from the original Portuguese manuscript. There is another translation from the first publication in German to be released shortly by University of Minnesota Press.) I have too much to say about this book – literally, too much to say… I will be re-reading it and writing on it and re-writing for years to come. Since this is a blog post and not Vol. IX of the Encyclopoedia Flusserica, I will limit myself to a small passage that nicked my frontal lobe as I read it. Perhaps this will prove to be a method for future posts: that which nicks or tickles the frontal lobe. Akin to the Morelliana from the other side of Rayuela, but all the more ticklish for appearing on a blog as nearly-unread ephemera.
Flusser’s book is the culmination of his life-long speculative theorizations on intersubjectivity. His immediate goal is to understand the uncanny deep-sea vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis), but not as a object available for dissection, analysis and categorization by the scientist. Rather, Flusser speculates, in quasi-fictional fashion, that Vampyroteuthes could be historical subjects replete with their own reflection, epistemology, sociology, philosophy and art. Human investigation into Vampyroteuthis would then take the form of an intersubjective dialogue instead of the human scientist’s monologue about a non-human object.
Objectivity in this sense is anything but objective, but rather a peculiar result of human being-in-the-world over time (evolution). Here Flusser differs sharply from the prevailing trends in (French) post-structuralism from the time his volume was published (1987). I think it’s not overly general to say that Derridean deconstruction would tend to posit objectivity (and hence subjectivity) as inherently discursive, a construct of human discourse under constant sign of erasure or suppression so as to present as “natural” and unconstructed. Flusser’s stance is biological rather than discursive, where “biology” and “genetic” are not to be confused with “deterministic” or “reductionistic.”
Human hands, so separate from the genitals, mouth or brain, have evolved to manipulate things outside the body. Given the structure of our perceptive organs, the objects thus manipulated “appear” to perception as light reflected or sound deflected or heat emitted, etc. Vampyroteuthis by contrast has its mouth, anus and brain all interconnected in the same part of the body, its genitals are incorporated into its tentacles that feed things into its mouth-anus-brain, and it has a special organ to produce light. So whereas the world “appears” to humans in the form of objects to be manipulated (think Plato’s Cave), Vampyroteuthis “produces” the world as matter of subjective perception in order to digest the world sexually. For humans (or at least Lacanians), the orgasm (jouissance) is beyond critique, the “remainder” of rational thought that drives self-reflection but which cannot itself be thought of rationally. For Vampyroteuthes, orgasm is critique, the sole rationale for existence, overtly available to mind.
The point of Flusser’s investigation, then, is not to obtain objective validity, but to critique the conditions under which human objectification of the world becomes imperative. To understand why humans live to objectify, and nowhere more so than through our arts:
Men seek to imprint acquired information upon objects. Other men that pass by the informed objects will collect such information, thereafter “objectified.” We trust the relative presence of the objective world, and that is why we entrust it with our acquired information. We trust that informed objects may outlive us, and after our deaths attest to our passage through the world. Therefore, humanity hopes to possess two types of information storage: one for genetic information, the egg, and one for acquired information, objective culture (books, buildings, paintings). Thanks to this storage humanity considers itself immortal: within the egg as a species, and within informed objects as individuals. (105)
I tend to favor this sort of aesthetic critique over what we might call the “typical” discursive deconstruction of poststructuralism. (NB: One should note, however, how the terms used by Flusser in the passage above, especially “imprint” and “death” and “egg (origin),” would all be perfectly at home in a Derrida essay.) I favor it because it is historical and materialist, without becoming a “historical materialism” (Marxist or deconstructive) focused solely on a constructed substratum of symbolic discourse. Eggs are media for information storage; art is media for information storage; information exists in the world, it is the world, rather than being a discourse striving to symbolize/signify an external world. This does not mean that eggs are natural and art is objective, since Flusser by no means argues that “nature” or “objectivity” are axiomatic or inherent. Being a historical subject, whether human or cephalopod, is to reflect on one’s life, including the limits of one’s death. Being in the world – or what we should really call “worlding” – is to acquire information, produce information, store information.
This discussion brings me to the passage that nicked my tickle earlier. To repeat, Flusser is not trying to objectify art, and he is not trying to subjectify art. He is critiquing a set of relations – informatic relations – between humans and nonhumans whereby one constitutes oneself as “subject” in the act (performance?) of constituting the other as “object.” This sense of informatics Flusser alternately calls “vocation” or “feedback,” and he rather beautifully expresses this as poetry:
The object’s resistance provokes man. As if it was a voice that came from the object, calling to be informed. This is the human vocation. There are men whose vocation it is to inform stones, and others whose vocation it is to inform letters. Whoever does not discover the object of his vocation will live in frustration. The vocation, this “feedback” between man and object, is so passionately engaging that it leads man to forget his original purpose, that of informing objects so that the information can continue to be available to other men. The object itself absorbs man’s interest. In the same way that stone transforms into statue and writing into text, man is transformed into sculptor and writer and forgets that he is a man for other men. Man, with all his feeling, thoughts, values and desires realises himself in stone and in letters, all of his passions and actions become concentrated upon the object. An example of this objectification of existential interest is poetry. Language is apparently a medium for intersubjective communication, and yet the poet realises himself during the struggle against the deeply rooted rules and structures of language. No longer does he speak through language, but against it. Creating an object out of its intersubjectivity. The poet’s vocation is to inform language. (107-108)
Whether as eggs or as poems, we are intersubjective beings who exist to exchange information. (This is not a universal truth, but a point-of-view that has evolved to the point that it can only be understood now, in the global-informational world of the “Unicity.” It is a point-of-view to cherish and despise, fear and dance.) The vocation, that mad need to sculpt or blog or install totally awesome car stereos or whatever, is not an individual calling, because as intersubjective beings no-one is a true individual. Neither is the vocation a calling from some metaphysical power, since the intersubjective-informatic world is thoroughly physical (not metaphysical). The vocation is the result of feedback, or looping informational noise, of resistance, between human and nonhuman.
In this view, it appears that the poem does not use language merely to communicate or transmit information. The poem “informs” its object, it “objectifies” language so that it can inform intersubjective communication with history. So, beyond whatever the words or symbols actually “say” (denote or connote), the poem is “poetic” to the extent that encodes language with history in a way that does not speak directly: personal history, sexual history, political, socio-economico-ethnico-mechanico-ecologico… One “performs” the poem through enunciation, utterance, declamation, reading; yet the moment of performance is the reenactment, or better, the re-engagement of history and historical consciousness.
Cynics might call such poetico-informatics as mere “data recovery.” I would prefer the term “jazz.” To sense in noise the love-supreme of where we’ve been and how it’s going. To dive into the abyss “in a silent way.” Need I explain further why Ornette and John Zorn (and Vilém Flusser) are so important?