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The Paradox of the Swallow

Yves Citton

Translated from the French
by Aviva Cashmira Kakar

In order to have a better grasp of the issues developed by Vilém Flusser in his 1987 article “Décoller du papier” (“Leaving Paper Behind,”), Back Office proposed that, forty years later, researcher Yves Citton (currently Professor of Literature and Media at the University of Paris 8, Vincennes Saint-Denis) analyze the electronic evolutions in communication media.

The short texts written by Vilém Flusser over the course of his life are nothing less than a series of miniature roller coaster rides. Their reading inspires a vertiginous ascent, suspends us for a weightless moment, then propels us back down, crushing us under the force of sudden acceleration, only to change course suddenly, do an about-face, turning around, again and again. One must have a strong heart and an agile mind to ride the course—or at least a good safety belt. One must be akin to a swallow in order to comment upon such movements without weighing them down. “Explaining” this type of text can only result in stultifying it—as good as attempting to caress a hummingbird in full flight with mittens. One can only access its meaning by cutting it loose. Attempting to cleave to its meaning is essentially preventing it from doing what it does best: taking flight, with both wings spread, a left wing that pushes upward and a right that plunges backward. Nevertheless, let us try to put down on paper what takes off from paper...

It would be easy to affirm, here as elsewhere, that Flusser dreams with his eyes open, carried away by his speculative exaltation, and that cold, hard reality invalidates his pseudo-futuristic visions. To put it another way, it is by taking flight from information through the force of thought that the “swallow” of his writings can take itself by surprise, to the point of risking falling apart as it struggles against two hatreds. The hatred of the new refuses to see “[anything] radically new in the electronic migration of writing.”11 Unless otherwise mentioned, all citations are from the translation of the paper, “Leaving Paper Behind,” p. 62. The so-called abandonment of paper, predicted since the 1980s when Flusser wrote his text, remains in the realm of fantasy. Never have our mailboxes been crammed with so much paper advertising. Our supposedly “paperless” offices can rarely do without a printer, and the proclaimed death of the book is a swan song that continues to linger. As for the hatred of change, it obstinately continues apace—etched in marble, closed upon itself, fixed within the limits of its being or its original intent. To these twin hatreds, set back to back in the name of “conservative and reactionary objections,” Flusser counters with a “revolution” destined to “radically [change] lives on both an individual and social level.”

This revolution, induced by the computerized “takeoff” of writing is more difficult to define than it would seem. That is what lends it the appearance of a never-ending bullshit session in the eyes of the two aforementioned hatreds. Here, it is relevant to get a finer grasp on its elusive and volatile nature. Leaving paper behind cannot merely be summarized as passing from a fixed medium (printed matter) to a fluent one (electronics). This is also not limited to playing the opening of what would become the Web 2.0 against the “ending of text” printed on a page. It does not correspond either to oppositions ;which are nonetheless classic elements of Flusser’s thought—between the linearity of the written and the mosaic of digital numbers,22 See Vilém Flusser, Does Writing Have a Future?, Nancy Ann Roth, trans., (University of Minnesota Press, Univocal, 2011). Original title Die Schrift. Hat schreiben Zukunft?, 1987, also available on disk. or the contrast between the monology of discourse and the polyphony of dialogue.33