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 See Vilém Flusser, Kommunikologie [Communicologie], Stefan Bollmann and Edith Flusser, ed., (Frankfurt: Fischer, 1998). All of these factors of taking off and detachment are well and truly at work. They are all evoked in the turn of a roller coaster. However, the most important element remains elsewhere ;between the tracks, where only the flight of a swallow can lead us.

So what does an affirmation such as this one mean: “The text that appears on the screen is no longer the mere result of creativity […], it is creativity itself.” First, one understands that the paradigm of the work is replaced by that of the process—in keeping with an evolution that had been shaking up and reconfiguring the art world since the 1970s. Everything became a work in progress. We then come to understand that the individualistic and romantic image of the author is collectivized, becoming a series of ephemeral communities that vary according to circumstances, induced by the dialogical life of interventions whose esthetic is more relational than monumental. All this is true. One must nevertheless forge even further ahead in order to follow Flusser’s swallow. He feels that creativity lies not in the process, nor in the receptive and recreational collectivity of the text but in the text itself. So, what does it all mean?

Things become a bit clearer around the bend of a subsequent paragraph, where one can read that “the threads of lines of text form bundles, networks, nodes. The unidimensional nature of text on paper is transformed into an equivocal pluridimensionality.” A text is a text, that is to say a texture, otherwise put, a fabric. So what is woven into it? Words, phrases, but also meanings, affirmations, refutations, and, with them, social relationships, links to production. Those who contemplate the new are of course in the right: all text, and not just electronic files, is a tissue of sociality (processual and collective), from the phase of its composition until the phase of its reception, by way of its phase of transmission. A text, whether on papyrus or on the screen, is imbued with meaning only through the effort of the attention that is invested in it. However, by only perceiving a repetition of the same, the denigrators of the new miss something essential: the materiality of printed matter is a characteristic that is not only fixed in time, but also as it were, autarchic. The light of the sun is that is required for it to become visible, even though this same light, for the same reason, alters it, fades it, and in the long term, destroys it.

As far as electronic text is concerned, it has had to renounce this autarchy. It requires a constant flux of electrons in order to continue to remain visible. It depends upon an external force which traverses it and constantly recomposes it from the inside. The digital object only exists through a perpetual (aeronautic) takeoff whose consequences are far more important than its mere departure off the printed page. Like the swallow, it must constantly beat its wings in order to continue its motion. It is not content with merely being (read): it exists only to be projected, and its projection is only possible through a constant injection of electricity. Its incessant takeoff exposes it to the constant risk of a crash—something more than probable in our era of collapse. All of our imaginings about communication deserve to be reviewed because of it. We retain, as an implicit model of writing, the concept of the message in a bottle, cast into the sea. Without having obtained the attention of a hypothetical reader, we know that the message will not have truly existed. However we cling to the hope that what has been cast into the sea and onto the page will navigate by their own means, along the currents that consistently agitate the aquatic realms. For a filled bottle full of air, floating is the essence of passivity. Something has been flung out, it carries its own visibility like a bit of data, perishable certainly, but free, without cost, without the need for a constant reinvestment of resources.

Electronic text only leaves paper at the price of a constant supply of fuel to continue to remain (readable). Even more importantly, it only appears insofar as its active process of projection is regularly updated in order to remain in sync with the evolving technical milieu in which it fits. My old 2.5-inch floppy disks contain texts that I recorded in the 1990s. Electricity feeds my computer, thanks to nuclear power plants that have not yet had major accidents, but the hardware and software of my machine are no longer compatible with these platforms, which are now obsolete. This demonstrates the necessity for constant re-creation, upon which the existence of electronic text is based. Its destiny is not only to leave paper behind but to constantly and interminably to leave its means of production behind, those of the past and those of the present alike. The denigrators of change will bitterly denounce its unstable character. It only survives as text through the constant alteration of that which brought it to life before. Its hope for continuity derives from its capacity for metamorphosis. This constant need for adaptation could be perceived as the price to be paid for all truly living organisms, or those introduced into a living milieu, that is to say one that is evolutive. However, our late awakening to the environmental constraints that limit the frenetic squandering of our limited resources confronts us with the unsustainability of this mirage of infinite ascent. The question is well and truly that which Bruno Latour asks in his most recent book regarding our soaring modernity: where do we land?44 Bruno Latour, Où atterrir ?, (Paris: La Découverte, 2017). Below the horizon of climate change and the exhausting of our shared resources, the fantasy of perennial ascent has more than a little lead in its wings. As Flusser reminds us, modernity looks more and more like irresponsible fooling around while imagining that “the network thus established would have no limits, neither in time or space. It would be a creative process, divested of any material resistance.” Material resistance can neither be denied nor shaken off, because it is the actual principle of the age of computerized text in its basic form of electrical resistance.

Flusser, whose career in Brazil closely concerned questions of engineering, knew this better than anyone. It would never be a question of a return to paper, of finding therein a reassuring landing on terra firma. This, for the good reason that, in truth, we have never left it, neither paper, nor dry land. Matter and its resistance remain indispensable to feeding the swallow that defies them. The snare lies in our conception of time. We have the illusion that the latter is a matter of pure succession, whereas it is just as reliant upon the superimposition of strata, which are out of phase but not at all incompatible with each other. Even in the era of smartphones, some of us, a great number even, continue to read books and print out office forms. It is not paper itself that imposes a certain “closure of the text,” but rather our relationship with time, the multiplicity of Media and the social relationships it integrates: “[…] the longer the speech, the fewer the listeners.” The counterexample of the weighty tomes of the Harry Potter best sellers is not sufficient to invalidate this principle, which is why Twitter still trends. “Brevity is the soul of wit: the shorter the text, the greater its beauty, excellence and truth.” In keeping with the German term Dichtung, poetry is a “strategy of condensation.”

An initial development of Flusser’s thought moves us to ponder just how “this strategy clips the wings of creativity.” The dissemination of creativity through digital means is in opposition to the condensation of time through poetry. The virtues of the unexpected, when creativity is defined as the “production of a new (unexpected) [piece of] information,” are in opposition to the merits of all that is dense, substantial and consistent. Thus digital communication departs from the ground of poetic density, to lend wings to a curiosity eager for surprises. A second movement ;apparently contradictory, but in reality parallel to the first—complements this dynamic of ascent through another operation which is also located at the heart of our digital processes, one which, as far as its concerned, pertains rather to a “sticking back together,” rather than a taking off. The digital dialogue recomposes another form of sociality that is properly cybernetic: a sociality governed (or more precisely, from an etymological standpoint, “steered”) by software whose protocols regulate our interactions regarding texts. It is these very same programs that henceforth write our writings. Flusser affirms this through all his texts, at the same time as the German media theorist Friedrich Kittler drummed it into all his provocations.

The departure of paper towards programs corresponds exactly to this: “what matters is the elaboration of a menu by the writer.” The new figure of the writer is actually the programmer: literally, the one who writes (graphein) before (pro) that which will be written thereafter. In a restaurant, the menu dictates in advance, or “writes” if you will, the creativity of a guest’s dietary choices. In the case of electronic communication, the protocols dictate in advance, or “write” the interactional parameters of the participants’ creativity. As Flusser clarifies, for those who still might not get it: “creativity is not however, ‘collective.’ It merely becomes cybernetically structured.” This cybernetic ‘rudder’ is neither a top-down dictatorship, nor a bottom-up democracy. It is a very particular form of ascent that brings us together according to the creative modes of creative (but programmed) recomposition.

How does computerized communication link us all together? Through a play of echoes and responses, commentaries and re-tweets which, combined, bewitch us. The protocols are the technical operators of psycho-, social- and eco-“logical” dynamics of mesmerization, that is to say resonances and vibrations dictated by the geometry of the vaults beneath which our dialogues enter as echoes, phases and differential phases. This “re-adherence” is often the result of a solicitation: those who communicate today through electronic means are frequently networked through commercial interests. Their digital glue is strongly redolent of the desire for gain.

As Flusser informs us, the distinctive feature of electronic text is that it makes its way towards “creative readers who are also ‘responsible’ in the strictest sense of the term.” It should be understood that being ‘responsible’ entails feeling bound to respond to what is being proposed (frequently for avaricious purposes). This responsibility is at once a blessing and a curse—an irrepressible agitation and a conformist nearsightedness. The cybernetic rudder, as it has been developing over the last two decades, pushes us towards a responsibility that indissociably detaches us from our physical milieus, that acts up (spiraling into fits of viral passion), solicits us (it monopolizes our attention with exciting treats) and reconnects us (bonding us through gregarious behaviors). Breaking away and reconnecting make up two complementary sides of the same, perpetually revolving, coin; the same principle dictates that the readers be creative insofar as they respond to each other. Any “response” is at least minimally creative in terms of the stimulus that elicited it. That is what constitutes its difference from a simple “reaction.” However, two entities who “respond to each other” maintain a symmetrical parallelism which undermines the autonomy of each one. The responsibility that Flusser lays at the heart of electronic communication is that it separates us from ourselves even as it links us all with each other. In the conclusion of his essay, Flusser cites philosopher Martin Buber as he explicitly identifies this dual movement with “religious life.” It also frees us from certain terrestrial attachments in order that we become more linked (religare) as we bond around common aspirations. Regarding Biblical hermeneutics, interpretation takes off from the paper much as the Spirit ascends from the Letter. Indeed, it is this “glue” of a religious nature that makes the difference between a creativity that is merely “collective” and a creativity that is “cybernetically structured.” One does not respond without “belief” in the premise of the question, without becoming part of the choir of a communal mass.

All of these ascensions relative to the multiple separations and taking off from paper in the direction of electronic communication boil down once more to an apparent contradiction: Flusser wrote a text, which was read at a colloquium at Marseille in May of 1987, but it was well and truly printed on paper. It matters little that this text, scanned and transcribed, is printed in the paper version of the magazine Back Office or circulated by digital means. Here, with an appropriately religious attention, I interpret its stunning poetic density in a text which is itself printed, that is to say fixed and typeset on a page (either printed or online) of the same magazine.

What ascends from paper—the swallow that takes flight off the page—is the significance which alters and infinitely renews the information programmed into the text. Papyrus, papers, magnetic tape, printed circuits—all contain information. One can quantify it, record it, transmit it, or transcode it. Only a human body, filled with certain desires and certain fears, accustomed to certain practices, instilled with a certain culture, can transform this information into significance. A printed or digitized text is a sequence of letters or bytes. It only takes on its significance when human attention lends it meaning. One must become a swallow in order to follow this ascent of information into significance through the grace of attention. Setting on paper what ascends from paper: the same paradox is what motivated Flusser to write this text on his lecture at the conference; the interpreter painstakingly attempts to explain his text, along with each reader who seeks to make sense of the commentary, which is drawing to a close. It is the paradox of the “attentional” swallow, who is all the more free to soar all the higher, the closer its attachment to its infinitely creative duty.