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Leaving Paper Behind

Vilém Flusser

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

Vilém Flusser (1920–1991), who had successive careers as a linguist, philosopher, Media theorist, anthropologist and artist, to name a few, was a pioneer who anticipated the profound implications of electronic media. His work remains relatively unknown in France since only a small portion of it has been published, nonetheless the scope of his work is considerable. Flusser wrote in Portuguese, German, English and French, rethinking concepts in their guest language. Flusser’s French texts (for the most part unpublished), were written from the 1970s on, when he settled in the south of France and, since 2007, have been preserved in the form of facsimiles at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK).

This unpublished article from 1987 is as much evidence of Flusser’s investigations into the future of writing as a glimpse into the singular literary quality of his research. It was initially written in the context of the Création Artistique–Découverte Scientifique (Artistic Creation–Scientific Discovery) symposium, Marseille–Luminy on the 14th and the 15th of May 1987.

Alphanumeric and iconographic information is in the process of detaching itself from material media, such as paper, in order to take flight into the “magnetic fields” of the electronic realm. The consequences of such an emergence cannot as yet be foreseen. Culture works as a construct to enable the production, distribution and storage of information. Virtual information is produced, distributed and stored in a different manner than information printed on material objects (such as in shoes for example) and that printed on material surfaces (such as texts). This study is confined to a consideration of the evolution in the production of alphanumeric texts and the foreseeable consequences that the computerization of texts will have upon a writer’s creativity.

First, a word about the term “creativity.” If you free it from its legendary and ideological connotations (such as “creation ex nihilo”), the term becomes one that is accessible from a scientific standpoint (possibly even quantifiable). The term would then signify the production of new (i.e. unexpected) information. It can be said that all new information is based upon the data that has preceded it. Its novelty consists of the restructuring and reformulation of one or several bits of preexisting information, and/or the introduction of anomalous elements [which one might refer to as] “noise” into the preceding data. Such a redefinition of the term “creativity” does not render it more transparent, on the contrary, it becomes even more obscure. It raises difficult problems: is processing ;the restructuring and reformulation of information—predictable, deliberate, or a product of chance? What is “noise”? However, this has the advantage of shifting the theory of creativity from the realm of the impossible to that of the possible. It becomes conceivable that, in the future, we could create—not just empirically (through intuition, inspiration, etc.), but also technically (using a theory). In this scenario, we can expect a veritable explosion of human creativity.

Regarding textual creativity in an alphanumeric format, it is a matter of processing two levels of information: that of thought, and that of language. In terms of thought, we process ideas stocked within the memory of the writer in order to formulate new thoughts; we reformulate, condense, analyze, and synthesize the accumulated ideas. In terms of language, we process information on syntactic, semantic, phonetic and rhythmic levels in order to formulate new articulations. “Noises” can be introduced on both levels. For example, in terms of thought, they could consist of elements of the subconscious, in terms of language, words in a different tongue. Both levels are mutually implicated and interdependent. This is why a writer’s creativity is presented as a highly complex phenomenon, and it is also the reason why we still have not managed to make a truly creative word processor.

When one writes on paper, one creates lines that advance unequivocally towards a final period. A text produced in this manner is one-dimensional and discursive. It begins and it ends. It presents itself as a finished “work” that is completed and perfected, as in the case of a book. This “closure” of a text is not due solely to the structure of the lines, which proceed towards a period, but also to the limits dictated by the material nature of the medium used, i.e. paper. Even writers who are opposed to the closure of a text, who refuse the concept of the period, cannot circumvent this. They produce interrupted texts, mere fragments. Nor can those who wish to push the limits by creating prodigious roman-fleuves escape this. All texts written on paper will end in one way or another; the longer the speech, the fewer the listener…