Three questions for: Rainer Guldin, Editor-in-Chief of Flusser Studies
In his work, the philosopher and cultural theoretician Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) anticipated many themes that are currently topical. We spoke with Rainer Guldin, lecturer in German language and culture at the Università della Svizzera Italiana and editor-in-chief of the multilingual and freely accessible e-journal, Flusser Studies, and asked him three questions about the role of design in Flusser’s work.
1. Vilém Flusser published articles on a number of different subjects. What role does reflecting on design play in his work?
If you look through the posthumous publications of Flusser’s work, the theme that particularly stands out is design. There are several collections in this area: the special number “Virtuelle Räume – Simultane Welten” from Archplus (1992), Fabian Wurm’s “Vom Stand der Dinge” (1993), Martin Pawley’s “The Shape of Things” (1999), Rafael Cardoso’s “O mundo codificado” (2007), the Italian version “Filosofia del design” (2003), published by Bruno Mondadori (Milan), and the French version “Petite philosophie du design” (2002), published by Circé (Strasbourg).
In spite of differences, the various editions are largely similar in content. We assume that there are differences in the collections for publishing reasons. The fact that it was a financially interesting choice is also demonstrated in “Vom Stand der Dinge” being republished in October 2016.
This first impression is deceptive, however. Flusser is not a design theoretician. Design is a term that he accepted within his construct of thinking rather late on, towards the end of the 1980s. Flusser wrote his first article on this subject for a congress organised by the International Design Forum Ulm, “Gestaltung und neue Wirklichkeit” [Design and New Realities], held from 2 to 4 September 1988. It was a commissioned work (“Gebrauchsgegenstände” [objects of utility]) and was published on 8 September 1988 in the Swiss newspaper, Basler Zeitung. Between 1989 and 1991, Flusser wrote a total of ten articles for the magazine, Design Report, published by the German Design Council. “Gebrauchsgegenstände” was republished under the new title of “Design. Hindernis zum Abräumen von Hindernissen” [Design. Obstacle to Clear Away Obstacles] in Design Report (issue 9, January 1989) and is the seventh article in Wurm’s collection.
Flusser’s design articles belong in the area of his phenomenological essays on objects. This interest can be traced back to his Brazilian period. Back then the project was called “Coisas que me cercam” [Things that surround me, determine me]. Various articles from this area were then accepted into the French collection “La force du quotidien” (1973). Florian Rötzer published the volume “Dinge und Undinge” (1993) on this range of topics. In addition to articles on design, the Cardoso set also contains some articles from this collection.
2. What makes Flusser’s thoughts – particular with reference to design – still so topical and important today?
Flusser’s attitude to design continues to be fascinating because he chose an unusual, very broad, wide-ranging philosophical approach. He built the concept of design into a comprehensive thought construct that, in addition to the phenomenological dimension already mentioned, also includes concepts such as art, technology (computed technical images), project, design, constructivism (scattering and gathering), imagination and interpretation (not search for meaning). Flusser’s desired synthesis of an environment completely designed by people, of an absolute artificiality (“art is more valuable than the truth” – a quote by Nietzsche that Flusser would frequently cite), that he understood as a second degree concreteness, is also achieved by connecting art, science and philosophy. The concept of design – also as a premodern connection of art and technology, or in the sense of modernism: life as art, for the Surrealists, for example, but also at the Bauhaus – is yet another word, to capture this particular effect.
3. What is interesting is not only what Flusser wrote but also how he wrote: you suggest – as in your lecture “Cotton Wool. On Flusserian Terminology” at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague as part of the “Transcoding Flusser” symposium in April 2016 –, we change how we think about Flusser and analyse his articles. You say that his articles have a performative aspect that takes the reader first in one direction and then in another and, as a result, presents him with several perspectives. You suggest “reading all of Flusser’s articles as fictitious texts”. What advantages did this sort of writing offer him, particularly with regard to writing about design?
All this now flows into Flusser’s own nomadic writing methods, meandering back and forth between languages and media. He writes neither objective, factually verifiable articles nor purely literary works but rather intersubjective dialogical philosophical fiction at the edges of discourse. He structures his articles in such a way that they fall between the lines and the reader himself is required to be productive. His articles are always provocative thereby inviting contradiction. Design is also the will to produce things that are beautiful, functional and, at the same time, stimulate people to think. Designing a world anew also means wanting to change the world fundamentally.