Vilém Flusser

New
Image
of
Man

“The new image of Man looks roughly like this: we have to imagine a network of human interrelations, a ‘field of intersubjective relations’. The strands of this web must be conceived as channels through which information (ideas, feelings, intentions and knowledge etc.) flows. When these strands knot for a moment, they form what we call ‘human subjects’. The totality of the strands constitutes the concrete sphere of life and the knots are abstract extrapolations.

[…] The density of the web of human interrelations differs from place to place. The greater the density, the more concrete the relations. These dense points form wave troughs in the field […] The wave troughs exert an attractive force on the surrounding field (pulling it into their gravitational field) so that more and more human interrelations are drawn in from the periphery. […] These wave troughs shall be called ‘cities’. […]

In this sense, the new city would be a place where ‘we’ identify ourselves reciprocally as ‘I’ and ‘you’, where identity and difference determine each other. That is not only a question of dispersal but one of exchange. Such a city presupposes an optimum dispersal of human interrelations: ‘others’ should become ‘neighbours.’ And it assumes that the cables of human interrelations are not unidirectional, […] as with television, but in real networks, respons(e)ibly, as in the telephone network.” Vilém Flusser 1990[1]

article
Elizabeth Sikiaridi
Frans Vogelaar
July 1999

Phenomenology

Architectural space and structures and the mental spaces and structures of philosophical discourses have always been associated with each other. These interrelations are very clearly perceptible in our century too, as architecture has been influenced by the philosophical discourse1 and philosophy has continued the practice of ‘transferring’ architectural metaphors. But the contemporary philosophical structure has cracks, this contemporary philosophical house (the metaphor, the transfer, from architecture to philosophy) this “hovel is a trap leading to a bottomless abyss.”2 On the other hand, the transfer from philosophy to architecture has strongly influenced architecture by generating “creative misunderstandings”, as for example in the rich array of formal interpretations of Derrida’s de-constructions.3 Another line of thought, represented by Heidegger’s phenomenological act of “dwelling poetically,” has been (re)transferred into architecture, in the form of the discourse on “genius loci” (Christian Norberg-Schulz)4 and “Critical Regionalism” (Kenneth Frampton).5

Phenomenology (founded by Husserl, developed by Heidegger) “is the result of a crisis in Modern science. The formal and practical difficulties inherent in scientific theories have lead to the recommendation to ‘go back to the phenomena themselves’, to ‘let them speak for themselves’, and to abandon the futile search for an objective knowledge in favour of a concrete, intersubjective knowledge.”6 Coming from the same phenomenological school of thought as Heidegger, Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), a Czech Jew, Professor of Philosophy of Communication at São Paulo University in Brazil, does not share Heidegger’s cultural pessimism nor participate in his demonization of technology. Flusser carries phenomenology beyond the crisis of (the abstractions of) science and technology. He connects Husserl’s phenomenology, focusing on the relationships of subject and object with communication theory and telematics, telematics being “a technique which builds channels (cables and so forth) that carry intersubjective intentionalities from one individual to another. A telematized society will be exactly that network of pure relationships which Husserl defines as the concrete structure of the social phenomenon.”7

Flusser, “going back to the phenomena themselves”, to “let them speak for themselves”, has written a series of beautiful texts reflecting (the meaning of) our (built) environment8: “On future Architecture,” on “Spaces,” on the urban (“Raum und Zeit aus städtischer Sicht”, “Phantom City”, “L’espace de la ville et les nouvelles technologies”, “The City as a Wave-trough in the Flood of Images”), on “Intelligent Building” (“Vom Unterworfenen zum Entwerfer von Gewohntem”), on facades (“Fassaden: Masken, Personen”), on “Walls”, on “Baths”, “On Tents”, etc..

Idensifying
the
Urban

For Flusser, “the phenomenology of a city is the equivalent of a study of a type of existence.”9 Describing “Man as a knot in the interrelation field”10, Vilém Flusser defines human identity within the densities of communication. Human existence being closely connected to “dialogue”, “society itself is simply the sum total of these [communication] channels. What goes on in such a society is a constant dialogue between all men. And this dialogue gives meaning (it performs Sinngebung) to the lives of all those involved in it.”11 Within the framework of this thought, Flusser views the ‘city’ (a notion closely connected to ‘civitas’) from the point of view of communication: “One should not think of the city as something to be designed as a geographical place (as for example a hill in proximity to a river) but as a curve in the intersubjective field of relations.”12 Thus cities are defined as “places of high density:”

“The new image of Man looks roughly like this: we have to imagine a network of interhuman relations, a ‘field of intersubjective relations’. The threads of this web must be conceived as channels through which information (ideas, feelings, intentions and knowledges etc.) flows. These threads get temporarily knotted and form what we call ‘human subjects’. The totality of the threads constitutes the concrete sphere of life and the knots are abstract extrapolations. […] The density of the webs of interhuman relations differs from place to place within the network. The greater the density the more ‘concrete’ the relations. These dense points form wave troughs in the field […] The wave troughs exert an ‘attractive’ force on the surrounding field (pulling it into their gravitational field) so that more and more interhuman relations are drawn in from the periphery. […] These wave troughs shall be called ‘cities’. […]

In this sense the new city would be a place where ‘we’ identify ourselves reciprocally as ‘I’ and ‘you’, where ‘identity’ and ‘difference’ determine each other. That is not only a question of scattering but one of switching. Such a city presupposes an optimum scattering of interhuman relations: ‘others’ should become ‘neighbours’. And it presupposes that the cables of the interhuman relations are switched reversibly, not in bundles as with television, but in real networks, respons(e)ibly, as in the telephone network. These are technical questions; and they are to be solved by urbanists and architects.”13

Housing
Idensity

Having described the ‘city’ as a ‘dialogical’ network, Flusser views the houses as “creative knots in the dialogical urban tissue:”14 “In fact, these days a house consisting of a roof and four walls can only be found in a fairy tale. The earthquake called the communications revolution has reduced it to ruins. Material and immaterial cables have made an Emmenthal cheese of it: antennae through the roof picking TV and radio out of the air, telephone lines snaking through the walls. We don’t live in houses anymore, we hide in ruins through which blow the blizzards of communications. No use trying to adapt those ruins: we need a new architecture for after the earthquake. […]

Similarly, we must imagine a house as a curve or crease in the net called ‘human relations.’ The curve reflects the changes in the net where human relations grow denser, and the house is the point where those relations are densest.

The new house must be attractive, in the gravitational sense in which Earth is attractive: it must constantly draw in new human relations. It must exist as a process rather than a static construction, for it must absorb new relations as its input, and it must process them into information. This information must be transmitted to its inhabitants and to other houses and agencies. The new house must be a knot within the human network, a creative knot within which the sum of information (the sum of ‘culture’) at its inhabitants’ disposal increases. It must be a knot built on material and immaterial cables.

This is a dangerous architectural project. There are two ways of connecting cables: as nets (in the telephone system, for example, information can go in both directions through the network) and as bundles (the television, where the same information is piped in one direction from broadcaster to consumers). If the new house were only to be part of a bundle (in Latin fasces), it could support an as yet unimaginable form of totalitarianism, with every house disposing of the same knowledge, no more, no less. […] Future architects must take care to avoid bundling, and to provide for a ‘dialogical network.’ This is a technical problem. Architects, being technicians and artists, are competent to solve it.”15

“Architects and urbanists (if these terms still make sense in the future) should research the ‘skin’ thoroughly. They should become dermatologists. It is not a question of installing sensory and motor nerve-simulations in the building (even perhaps a central nervous system), but above all, of simulating the specific permeability of the ‘skin’. An intelligent building is not only a tool to receive, process and send information, but also to store information. It is a memory. And this is what terms like ‘habitation’ and ‘habit’ mean: having stored, available, accessible information. In this intelligent sense future buildings should be places for habitation.”16 Referring to his definition of “Man as a knot in the interrelation field,” Flusser concludes: “The future buildings are to be projected as simulated skins of such knots.”17

Material
Idensities

Therefore according to Flusser, “the architect does not design objects any more but relations. […] Instead of thinking in geometric terms, the architect has to project networks of equations.”18

By counterposing the design of objects to the ‘project of relations’, Flusser does not plead for the de-materialisation of architecture, the dissolution of material ‘habitation’ into the immateriality of simulated networked environments. His thought surpasses the polarities ‘material versus digital’, ‘real versus virtual’. Viewing the ‘real’ as a graduation in function of density, he writes about (visual) perception: “The perceptions are then processed and the visualisations are taken for more real, the more densely and the more precisely they have been processed. The graduations of reality […] are a function of the density of the computations.”19 So, “something seems to be more real, the more densely it is scattered.”20 And “there is no difference between a simulated and a simulating world: both worlds (indeed all possible worlds) are computations of virtualities according to projects, be they spontaneous (according for instance to some genetic program), be they deliberate (according to the programs we are beginning to establish).”21

By regarding materials as programmed relations (informational materials), he overcomes the polarities ‘material versus informational’, anticipating ‘hybrid’ (fused analog and digital) architectures. Computations are not considered solemnly as de-materialisations of our worlds but also as paths “for going back to the phenomena themselves”, for going back to the “sphere of life” (Lebenswelt). Flusser’s phenomenology carries us beyond the crisis of the abstractions (of science and technology): “A step further in the abstraction is not possible: Less than nothing does not exist. Therefore we turn (one could say) one hundred and eighty degrees and start, slowly and effortfully, to go backwards in the direction of the concrete (sphere of life). Thus the new practice of computing and projecting point-elements into lines, into surfaces, into solid bodies and into the bodies concerning us.”22

Notes

[1] FLUSSER, V., Die Stadt als Wellental in der Bilderflut. In: V. FLUSSER, Nachgeschichten. Essays, Vorträge, Glossen; Düsseldorf 1990; translation into English partly by Stephen Cox (“The City as a Wave-trough in the Flood of Images”, in ARCH+ 111, March 1992, p. 84) and partly by Fiona Greenwood.

The estate of Vilém Flusser has been housed at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne since October 1998. In encouraging use of the archive for research purposes, assistance in continuing to supplement its contents is requested, through the donation of copies of M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations and other relevant publications.

 

 

1 Younès, Chris and Mangematin, Michel (eds.), Le philosophe chez l’architecte (Paris: Descartes & Cie, 1996).

2 Flusser, Vilém, “Wittgenstein’s Architecture”, in Welt/Fall, World/Fall. Vilém Flusser – Mischa Kuball (Exhibition Catalogue of Haus Wittgestein in Vienna, Oct.-Nov. 1991), unpaginated.

3 Wigley, Mark, The Architecture of Deconstruction. Derrida’s Haunt (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1993).

4 Norberg-Schulz, Christian, “Heidegger’s Thinking on Architecture”, in Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal, 1983, pp. 61-68; reprint in Theorizing a new Agenda for Architecture. An Anthology of architectural Theory 1965-1995, ed. Kate Nesbitt (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), pp. 429-439.

5 Frampton, Kenneth, “On Reading Heidegger”, in Oppositions 4, October 1974, unpaginated; reprint in Theorizing a new Agenda for Architecture. An Anthology of architectural Theory 1965-1995, op. cit., pp. 440-446.

6 Flusser, Vilém, “A Utopia of Gardens: Epicurus versus Marx” (original English version), published in French (“Les jardins de l’utopie”) in La Chartreuse (Villeneuve-Lez-Avignon, July-October 1980), p. 101.

7 Flusser, Vilém, “On Edmund Husserl”, in Review of Czech Jews, Nr. 4, 1987, p. 98.

8 The estate of Vilém Flusser has been housed at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne since October 1998. In encouraging use of the archive for research purposes, assistance in continuing to supplement its contents is requested, through the donation of copies of M.A. and Ph.D. dissertations and other relevant publications.

9 Flusser, Vilém, “Phantom City”, (Barcelona: Fundació Joan Miró, October 1985), p. 9.

10 Flusser, Vilém, “Vom Unterworfenen zum Entwerfer von Gewohntem”, in Intelligent Building (symposium publication), (Karlsruhe: University of Karlsruhe, October 1989), p. 7.

11 Flusser, Vilém, “On Edmund Husserl”, op. cit., p.98.

12 Flusser, Vilém, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung. (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Verlag, 1998), p. 53; first published in Mannheim: Bollmann Verlag, 1994.

“Man darf sich die zu entwerfende Stadt nicht als einen geographischen Ort vorstellen (als etwa einen nahe bei einem Fluß liegenden Hügel), sondern als eine Krümmung im intersubjektiven Relationsfeld.”

13 Flusser, Vilém, “Die Stadt als Wellental in der Bilderflut”, in: Flusser, Vilém, Nachgeschichten. Essays, Vorträge, Glossen; Düsseldorf 1990; translation in English partly by Stephen Cox (“The City as a Wave-trough in the Flood of Images”, in ARCH+ 111, March 1992, p. 84) and partly by Fiona Greenwood.

“Und sie setzt voraus, daß die Kabel der zwischenmenschlichen Beziehungen reversibel geschaltet werden, nicht in Bündeln, wie beim Fernsehen, sondern in echten Netzen, also verantwortungsvoll, wie beim Telefonnetz. Das sind technische Fragen, und sie sind von Urbanisten und Architekten zu lösen.”

14 Flusser, Vilém, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung, op. cit., p. 67.

15 Flusser, Vilém, “On Future Architecture”, in ARTFORUM, May 1990, no 9, vol. 28, p. 36.

16 Vilém Flusser, “Vom Unterworfenen zum Entwerfer von Gewohntem”, op. cit., p. 7.

“…Architekten und Urbanisten (falls diese Begriffe künftig noch einen Sinn haben werden), müssen die Haut gründlich untersuchen. Sie müssen Dermatologen werden. Es wird nicht nur darum gehn, sensorische und motorische Nervensimulationen ins Gebäude einzubauen (und vielleicht auch ein Zentralnervensystem), sondern vor allem darum, die eigentümliche Permeabilität der Haut zu simulieren. Ein intelligentes Gebäude ist nicht nur ein Werkzeug zum Empfangen, Prozessieren und Senden von Informationen, sondern auch zum Bewahren von Informationen. Es ist ein Gedächtnis. Und das meinen wohl Begriffe wie ‘Wohnung’ und ‘Gewohnheit’: gespeicherte, verfügbare, abrufbare Informationen haben. In diesem intelligenten Sinn werden die künftigen Gebäude Wohnorte zu sein haben.”

17 Vilém Flusser, ibid, p. 7.

“Die künftigen Gebäude sind als simulierte Häute derartiger Knotenpunkte zu entwerfen.”

18 Flusser, Vilém, “Entwurf von Relationen” (interview), in ARCH+, Nr. 111, March 1992, p.49.

“Der Architekt entwirft nicht mehr Gegenstände, sondern Verhältnisse. […] Statt geometrisch zu denken, muß der Architekt Netze aus Gleichungen entwerfen.”

19 Flusser, Vilém,”Cyberspace” (interview), in ARCH+, no 111, March 1992, p. 34.

“Die Wahrnehmungen werden dann zu Anschauungen prozessiert und die Anschauunen werden für desto wirklicher gehalten, je dichter und genauer sie prozessiert sind. Der Wirklichkeitsgrad […] ist eine Funktion der Dichte der Komputationen.”

20 Flusser, Vilém, “Ephemere, dialogische Architektur” (interview), in ARCH+, no 111, March 1992, p. 40.

“Etwas scheint desto wahrer zu sein, je dichter es gestreut ist.”

21 Flusser, Vilém, “Man as Subject or Project”, in Constructivism: Man versus Environment (Rotterdam, 1989), unpaginated.

22 Flusser, Vilém, Vom Subjekt zum Projekt. Menschwerdung, op.cit., p. 22.

“Ein weiterer Schritt in die Abstraktion ist nicht tunlich: Weniger als nichts kann es nicht geben. Daher wenden wir uns sozusagen um 180 Grad und beginnen, ebenso langsam und mühselig, in Richtung des Konkreten (der Lebenswelt) zurückzuschreiten. Daher die neue Praxis des Komputierens und Projizierens von Punktelementen zu Linien, Flächen, Körpern und uns angehenden Körpern.”