Does Writing Have a Future in the Peripheries?

Critical theorist, Vilém Flusser’s main agendas is a “recoding of history” not in terms of historical consciousness, but on the operative imperatives of apparatuses. This recoding inevitably takes the form of imperialism that at first glance appears to advocate a “value-free regime,” but which Flusser writes is better understood as an “order [of] all values in relation to absolute zero” (82). The general dissatisfaction with the “the flattening of all epistemological frameworks” can be often seen as arising from the first point. Particularly taking the example of postcolonial discourse’s explicit rejection of the Enlightenment – as a humanistic and scientific project of universal progress – it is not logical to accept Flusser’s argument that “computer programs, [without a] symbol for should” is an acceptable substitute for modes of criticism formulated on shoulds i.e. imperialism should not happen because it is immoral, unsustainable, and creates more problems than it solves.

But the problem of criticizing cybernetics and apparatuses from a humanistic point of view comes from the fact that the likes of Flusser recognize the cybernetic system is not value-free. “For [the cybernetic system],” he rather writes, “the statement that the kernel is large (or good or beautiful) in and of itself makes no sense; rather it must be described as relatively large” (82). Values for coded instructions – when “programming is rising up from alphanumeric code, becoming independent and separating itself from spoken language” (61) – are always relational, and thereby operate on the same logic of anti-imperial relativism postulated by post-colonial discourse. It makes no sense to cybernetic programming to assign a value of “good” or “bad,” but only “better than” or “worst of all.” And furthermore we have to remember that even humanistic notions of “good” or “bad” are arguably best understood as products of the “historical consciousness” brought about by writing, and therefore ought to be conceptualized as really a form of relational thinking: what we understand as “good” or “bad” is really nothing more than “better than” or “worst of all” whose etymology we have “learned to forget” (149).

So exactly are we supposed to counter such arguments that says “a new, posthistorical mode of thought is arising that assigns meaning to absurdity” (59)? I would argue the cultural and material conditions have not transcended history and more so, given the capitalist mode of imperialism such statements arise out of and operate within, it is not possible to make the universalist claims Flusser makes about “[W]riting, in the sense of placing letters and other marks one after another, appears to have little or no future” (3). Maria Fernández, in “Postcolonial Media Theory” makes this same strain of argument when she writes that facing ever increasing costs of upgrades, “[artists in poor countries] may chose not to work with technology in the first place. Thus, the emerging aesthetics could be retrogressive in two ways: in establishing mimesis as the norm to which art should aspire and in reestablishing the aesthetic superiority of wealthy nations over poor ones” (68).

The unnecessary, but certainly pleasurable swipe at Flusser aside (“Here I should add that in contemporary culture mimesis is not limited to the realm of images, as Flusser envisioned”), Fernández points out that the high technology and specialized technical skills required for what Flusser would call the cybernetic apparatuses are “closely connected with the military industrial complex, [and so] they have greater representation in developed countries.” In other words, they are historically situated in imperial metropoles and therefore arguments about modes of thought, representation, aesthetics, based on the utopian (or dystopian) visions of “images produced with digital codes are [I would correct Flusser here not] present everywhere at the same time” (150).

There is a certain presence extant in our global cultural and material spaces of peripheral societies that puts the lie to Flusser statement: “Future [sic] and possibility [sic] become synonyms, time [sic] becomes synonymous with “becoming more likely,” and present [sic] becomes the realization of possibilities in form of images”  (150). This presence read in terms of postcolonial discourse is the imperial structure itself, and given digital’s conceptualization and gestation in the uterus of the military industrial complex a differentiation between the metropole and the periphery is part of its very DNA. What is a likely for the metropole is an impossible for the periphery. Even as the digital programming exists, for the periphery it theoretically and empirically does not.

“Do we have to go back to kindergarten” Flusser questions as he thinks about those of us who are not yet “our grandchildren” so that we can prepare “a theory and philosophy of translation” needed by them (155). The point for Flusser is to “learn to forget” by “getting back to the level before we learned to read and write” and thereby became historically conscious (156). Given the structures of learning – there are teachers in kindergarten after all, and the room and its desks are organized in a pre-planned way – this learning to forget and getting back to a time before history is not ahistorical at all, but part and parcel of imperial practice for peripheral societies. Digital offers nothing to the postcolonial that writing cannot, especially those literate and affluent enough to operate in the digital; digital cannot offer him/her an “own flow of time”(154). Simultaneously, writing remains cheaper than digital cameras (the ubiquity of cellphones aside). So all of this begs the question: does writing have a future in the periphery? Yes.

Works Cited

Fernández, Maria. “Postcolonial Media Theory.” Art Journal 58. 3 (1999): 58-73. Print.

Flusser, Vilém. Does Writing Have a Future. Minneapolis: UM Press, 2011. Print.

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