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Does Writing Have a Future?

Does Writing Have a Future?

Vilém Flusser
Introduction by Mark Poster
Translated by Nancy Ann Roth
Volume: 33
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 216
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  • Book Info
    Does Writing Have a Future?
    Book Description:

    In Does Writing Have a Future?, Vilém Flusser asks what will happen to thought and communication as written communication gives way, inevitably, to digital expression. In his introduction, Flusser proposes that writing does not, in fact, have a future because everything that is now conveyed in writing—and much that cannot be—can be recorded and transmitted by other means.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7695-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. An Introduction to Vilém Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images and Does Writing Have a Future?
    (pp. ix-xxviii)
    Mark Poster

    Vilém Flusser remains relatively unknown to readers of critical theory, cultural studies, and media studies, particularly among readers of English. Given this, the Electronic Mediations series of the University of Minnesota Press herewith publishes in English translation two of his most important works,Does Writing Have a Future? andInto the Universe of Technical Images, both translated by Nancy Ann Roth. We trust that these publications, in addition to those already available from this and other presses, will bring Flusser’s ideas to a wider English audience. Flusser ought not to require an introduction such as I provide because his work...

  4. Does Writing Have a Future?

    • Introduction
      (pp. 3-4)

      Writing, in the sense of placing letters and other marks one after another, appears to have little or no future. Information is now more effectively transmitted by codes other than those of written signs. What was once written can now be conveyed more effectively on tapes, records, films, videotapes, videodisks, or computer disks, and a great deal that could not be written until now can be noted down in these new codes. Information coded by these means is easier to produce, to transmit, to receive, and to store than written texts. Future correspondence, science, politics, poetry, and philosophy will be...

    • Superscript
      (pp. 5-10)

      My intention in this book is to write about writing. It is, if you think about it, a project turned in on itself. It makes writing both the object (that one is facing) and the instrument one uses to deal with the object. Such an undertaking cannot be compared with thinking something over, in which ideas are directed against ideas. But this comparison shows how reflection is different from an attempt to write about writing. The particleoverin the constructto think something overcan be interpreted in two ways: on one hand, as the effort to let supplementary...

    • Inscriptions
      (pp. 11-16)

      Before asking whether writing could be abandoned, one must ask how writing began. Etymology may be helpful here.Writingcomes from the Latinscribere, meaning “to scratch.” And the Greekgrapheinmeans “to dig.” Accordingly, writing was originally a gesture of digging into an object with something, so making use of a wedge-shaped tool (a stylus). It is true that writing is no longer done this way. Now, writing usually involves putting pigment on a surface. We write on-scriptions rather than in-scriptions—and we usually write styluslessly.

      If we call on archaeology rather than etymology, it becomes uncertain whether inscription...

    • Notation
      (pp. 17-22)

      Whether written signs are engraved into objects or carried on the surfaces of objects is solely a question of technology. There is a complex feedback loop between technology and the people who use it. A changing consciousness calls for a changing technology, and a changing technology changes consciousness. Producing tools out of bronze rather than stone both expressed a changing consciousness and opened on to a new form of consciousness. One can justly speak of a Stone Age people and a Bronze Age people—or of a people that write in material and a people that write on it.


    • Letters of the Alphabet
      (pp. 23-36)

      The alphanumeric code we have adopted for linear notation over the centuries is a mixture of various kinds of signs: letters (signs for sounds), numbers (signs for quantities), and an inexact number of signs for the rules of the writing game (e.g., stops, brackets, and quotation marks). Each of these types of signs demands that the writer think in the way that uniquely corresponds to it. Writing equations requires a different kind of thinking from writing rules of logic or the words of language. We are unaware of the mental leaps we are obliged to make when we read and...

    • Texts
      (pp. 37-46)

      In their battle against the spoken language, characters of the alphabet (which are basically nothing but dead letters, invented to spin the magical promise of myth out into lines) suck the life of the language up into themselves: letters are vampires. Lines formed from these letters that have come alive are called “texts.” Etymologically, the wordtextmeans a textile and the wordlinea linen thread. But texts are unfinished textiles: they consist of lines (the woof) and are not held in place by vertical threads (the warp) as a finished textile would be. Literature (the universe of texts)...

    • Print
      (pp. 47-54)

      Typography is to be considered here less as a technology for the production of printed materials or as a method for distributing alphanumeric information than as a new way of writing and of thinking. These aspects of print are in fact of great importance for an understanding of the current information revolution (electromagnetic information can be regarded as a further development in the technology and distribution methods of print). But here we are concerned with a very radical question, namely, whether it was only with the invention of print that writers became aware of what they were actually doing by...

    • Instructions
      (pp. 55-62)

      One way to anticipate the kind of thinking that characterized the informatic revolution is to observe those who manipulate the apparatus, setting the new signs into electromagnetic fields. The wordprogramis the Greek equivalent of the Latinpraescriptioand the GermanVorschrift. Are these people continuing to write or starting again? Are contemporary reactionaries on the mark when they assert that nothing has changed fundamentally, that the essential always stays the same? To whom are these people writing? For they are not writing past a conclusion to another human being. Rather they write with and for apparatuses. Didn’t the...

    • Spoken Languages
      (pp. 63-70)

      When programming has set itself free of alphanumeric writing, thought will no longer need to work through a spoken language to become visible. The detour through language to the sign, such a distinguishing mark of Western cultures (and all other alphabetic cultures), will become superfluous. Thought and speech will no longer be fused, as they were when the alphabet was predominant. This fusion is the reason the rules of thinking are called “logic” (rules of words), that we use language criticism as a method of analyzing thought, that the Bible claims the Word to have been the beginning, or that...

    • Poetry
      (pp. 71-78)

      A distinction is traditionally made between poetry and mimicry (poiesis and mimesis). But under the sway of the alphabet, this close connection between thinking and language—poetry—is usually understood as a language game whose strategy is to creatively enlarge the universe of languages. This universe becomes poetically broader and deeper through the manipulation of words and sentences, the modulation of linguistic functions, a game with the meanings of words and sentences, rhythmic and melodic modulation of phonemes. Poetry in this sense is that source from which language always springs anew and, in fact, overall in literature, even in scientific,...

    • Ways of Reading
      (pp. 79-86)

      Common sense (known to be untrustworthy) suggests that writing precedes reading, for to be able to read, one must have something written. That is incorrect. There was reading (e.g., of peas) long before the invention of writing. Writing itself is just a way of reading: it involves selecting written signs from a heap, like peas, to be strung into lines.To read(legere,legein) means “to pick out, to peck.” This pecking activity is called “election,” the capacity to do it, “intelligence.” And the result of pecking is called “elegance” and “elite.” Writers are not the first intellectuals but only...

    • Deciphering
      (pp. 87-94)

      The wordciphercomes from the Arabicsifr(empty). The wordschiffreandzeroare derivatives as well. It was the Arabs who introduced us to numbers—and above all to zero. It is not necessary to understand set theory to know that numbers are empty containers meant to peck out quantities of something. For example, the cipher “2” is an empty container for pecking pairs, and the cipher “a” is an empty container for pecking any number of specific spoken sounds. The difference between “2” and “a” can be found only in that from which they peck: “2” pecks...

    • Books
      (pp. 95-102)

      This written reflection on writing, this “superscript,” has unwillingly arrived at the conclusion that we should expect writing to decline—for reasons that converge from various directions on this conclusion. This bundle of reasons can be summarized as follows: a new consciousness is coming into being. To express and transmit itself, it has developed codes that are not alphanumeric and has recognized the gesture of writing as an absurd act and so something from which to be free. The question arises whether we are forced to accept this unwelcome conclusion or whether it is still possible to avoid it. We...

    • Letters
      (pp. 103-110)

      The German wordBrief(letter) means “short writing” (French:brevet) and in English “short written summary.” But it is no longer used in German with this meaning. There are longBriefs. The reference is to texts that are not intended for the public, not directed to a publisher—even though many letters have been published, and many more, apparently directed to a specific addressee, are really eyeing up a publisher.

      In the previous chapter, the era of writing appeared as a transitional stage on the route between the forest and the land of automated apparatuses. In this context, letters, too,...

    • Newspapers
      (pp. 111-118)

      A vast literature concerned with newspapers, along with innumerable schools of journalism scattered around the earth, debate the curious fact that despite television, radio, and until recently, weekly news programs, there are still folded fliers that are flown into our homes daily. Or they wait with folded wings every day in specially constructed cages for us to fall into the trap. It cannot be only because newsprint is suitable packing paper—an inadequate explanation for two reasons: first, because better packing material is available, and pieces of meat wrapped in newspaper seem as antiquated as bridle paths; second, the explanation...

    • Stationeries
      (pp. 119-124)

      This is not about those shops that confront and seduce us through paper but rather about shops that sell writing materials, although even in stationery shops, we encounter the first sort of paper handlers. Stationery shops are of concern because after the decline of writing, they, too, will disappear from our environment. One might argue that stationery shops should not be singled out from all the others, that all shops are condemned to disappear with the decline of writing. Once information can be called down onto screens in private spaces, it will be possible to call down any goods that...

    • Desks
      (pp. 125-132)

      Before desks are compared with the apparatus that will come and replace them, it is advantageous to clear the slate. An empty table is more than just a plane: it is usually made of wood and supported by four legs or is some kind of simplified artificial beast of burden. It is, in addition, an unattainable ideal: one continually sets out to relieve it of its burden, to clear the table once and for all. And one is filled with envy noticing on television the vast and empty writing desks behind which sit those said to be powerful. Putting oneself...

    • Scripts
      (pp. 133-140)

      In recent years, there have been texts that are not directed to a publisher, and through him to readers, but rather to producers of film, television, and radio, and through these to viewers and listeners. People who write these texts are called “scriptwriters,” a word that etymologically means something like “writing etcher,” but no contemporary German equivalent occurs to me. This chapter empathizes with these people. It is not easy, for these people stand on slippery ground. It lies on a steep grade that forms a bridge between the uplands of literary culture and the abyss of the culture of...

    • The Digital
      (pp. 141-148)

      Among the perspectives available for gaining insight into the way things are being reordered, science holds a special position. Since the nineteenth century at the latest, natural science has been among the very few authorities that remain to us: we accept its conclusions without being forced by any kind of executive power. From the beginning of the twentieth century, it has been saying things so new that we haven’t yet begun to digest them. As varied as these new things may be, they may be grasped in two watchwords:relativityandquanta.

      The first watchword means that space, once seen...

    • Recoding
      (pp. 149-156)

      We will have to relearn many things. That is difficult because what we have to learn is hard to acquire but, above all, because that which has once been learned is hard to forget. One advantage of artificial intelligences is that they have no difficulty forgetting. From them, we are learning the importance of forgetting. It is a tremendous thing to relearn, for it demands that we rethink the function of memory. In our tradition, memory is the seat of immortality: in Judaism, for example, one of life’s goals is to remain in memory as a blessing. We must learn...

    • Subscript
      (pp. 157-162)

      We have to go back to kindergarten. We have to get back to the level of those who have not yet learned to read and write. In this kindergarten, we will have to play infantile games with computers, plotters, and similar gadgets. We must use complex and refined apparatuses, the fruit of a thousand years of intellectual development, for childish purposes. It is a degradation to which we must submit. Young children who share the nursery with us will surpass us in the ease with which they handle the dumb and refined stuff. We try to conceal this reversal of...

  5. Afterword to the Second Edition
    (pp. 163-164)
    V. F.

    New editions should really consider the old ones, and the new considerations should supplement the old. This supplemental text will not need to be so concerned with bringing things up to date because the text is an essay. An essay is an attempt to stimulate others to reconsider, to move them to provide supplements. That is the reason this text is also to be published as a disk: it is intended to be a snowball, the initial presentation increasingly covered over by subsequent additions. A series of branching new editions should unfold, with new considerations overlapping the earlier ones. Publishing...

  6. Translator’s Afterword and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 165-168)
    Nancy Ann Roth

    Vilém Flusser, like Walter Benjamin, understood translation as an engagement with language as such, resonating far beyond the fortunes of any particular text. But where Benjamin’s thought seemed to move toward a convergence among languages, a point where “the original and the translation [become] recognizable as fragments of a greater language,”¹ Flusser was keenly conscious of moments and spaces between codes, leaps between standpoints. He speaks of intractable antagonisms between certain kinds of codes, notably between images and linear texts, or more exactly, between the magical and historical consciousnesses they respectively support. He describes codes locked in combat as the...

  7. Translator’s Notes
    (pp. 169-170)
  8. Index
    (pp. 171-179)
  9. Back Matter
    (pp. 180-183)