Vilém Flusser’s “Unio Mystica” or, Telematic Universe as Technotopian Catastrophe

Hermann Hesse’s ironic novel Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game is about the secular sequestration of monkish scholars who’ve pursued the art of the Game across the millennium since Plato first imagined it as the contemplative life in his Allegory of the Cave. Hannah Arendt would divide the Fable between the vita activa and the vita contemplativa since the active life requires a constant immersion into practical affairs whereas the contemplative life is one best characterized by Plato’s Allegory. In the story, the philosopher is pulled from the shackles of opinion, those that dwell within doxa are the mass of individual incapable of retreating inward into the mind for contemplation. The unshackled philosopher is brought out of the cave pulled upward to see the world for what it truly is, its pure essence or eidos – the so called Ideas behind appearances. From then on, the philosopher knows that the common ordinary understanding of the appearing world where politics occurs is not how the world truly is. Instead the real world of which ours is an illusion and a shadow is of these pure unadulterated Ideas.

Hermann Hesse was to define this in his novel as “the unio mystica of all separate members of the Universitas Litterarum” and that he bodied out symbolically in the form of an elaborate Game performed according to the strictest rules and with supreme virtuosity by the mandarins of his spiritual province. This is really all that we need to know. The Glass Bead Game is an act of mental synthesis through which the spiritual values of all ages are perceived as simultaneously present and vitally alive. It was with full artistic consciousness that Hesse described the Game in such a way as to make it seem vividly real within the novel and yet to defy any specific imitation in reality. The humorless readers who complained to Hesse that they had invented the Game before he put it into his novel— Hesse actually received letters asserting this!— completely missed the point. For the Game is of course purely a symbol of the human imagination and emphatically not a patentable “Monopoly” of the mind.1

I came on the work of Vilém Flusser recently and read his book Into the Universe of Technical Images. I think what fascinated me was how prescient he was of where technology was heading in the early eighties of the last century, as well as how wrong in some ways he was, too. As I read through this work I began to see how much of a techno-utopian Flusser was, how he saw like Norman O. Brown (Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, Love’s Body), and Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, Esape From Evil) the tendency within capitalist culture toward a literal immortality project:

From this standpoint, telematics can be regarded as a technology that permits all fabricated information to be stored in permanent memory. In telematic dialogues, human and artificial memories exchange information to synthesize new information and to store it artificially. In this way, not only the new information but also the human memories that produced it are protected from oblivion. The real intention of telematics is to become immortal. (107). […] Only then will information be not only safe but also constantly productive of new information. And so strategic, dialogical play with pure information will at last be set in opposition to nature’s blind play of chance, making us immortal. (110).

For Flusser “telematics” is the art of immortality: “I won’t speak here of death. For this whole essay, which appears to be about the emerging universe of technical images, is, in fact, an effort to become immortal through images. Memory, the opposite of death, is the theme (and the motive) of this effort (i.e., of this essay as well as of telematics). (144)”. He envisioned a future when humans would merge with their machinic tendencies, when the separation between thought and being would be overcome and we would enter into an infosphere of pure creativity guided by both collective intelligence and artificial intelligence in dialogical conversation as producers of knowledge.

Like Foucault and others he saw humans entering a time when we would be captured and modulated by a network society. In the universe of technical, telematic images, there is no place for authors or authorities. Both have become superfluous through the automation of production, reproduction, distribution, and judgment. In this universe, images will govern the experience, behavior, desire, and perceptions of individuals and society, which raises the question, what does govern mean when no decisions need to be made and where administration is automatic? In a telematic society, does it still make sense to speak of government, of power and the powerful? (Flusser, 123). In this since we were shaped by the algorithms of an immersive systems of images which acted as the surround of our environment. The natural world would still be there, but for us it would be completely mediated by the telematic system of perceptions through which we saw the world rather than by way of our natural animal and cunning reason. Through implants, nanotech and biotech microsystems embedded in our physical substratum, or by way of our permanent merger with the telematic systems of robotics and augmented reality systems we would be bound by the circuitries of a world that had become artificial. The artificial would be our natural domain from then on.

There would come a time when we would not even remember our animal heritage, nor our natural ways of knowing and being. Much like Deleuze and Guattari who would see a process of subjectivation taking over from our older notions of a stable self-identity, Flusser would imagine a time when children would enter into this telematic sphere of play as a permanent revolution of processual revisioning, a continuous process of becoming other and metamorphic play in the chaotic realms of informational dialogic. “The person of the future, playing at the keyboard, will be ecstatic about the creation of durable information that is nevertheless constantly available for a new synthesis. We can see this ecstasy in its embryonic form in children who sit at terminals. The person of the future will be absorbed in the creative process to the point of self-forgetfulness. He will rise up to play with others by means of the apparatuses. It is therefore wrong to see this forgetting of self in play as a loss of self. On the contrary, the future being will find himself, substantiate himself, through play.” (Flusser, 104)

Sadly he also envisioned two tendencies within this telematic society, one toward fascism and total control, and the other toward more democratic processes – the latter never guaranteed, while the former was central to the designs of the capitalist system of globalism. “The society, spread apart by the magnetic fascination of technical images, is indeed structured, and an analysis of the media can bring this structure to light. Media form bundles that radiate from the centers, the senders. Bundlesin Latin is fasces. The structure of a society governed by technical images is therefore fascist, not for any ideological reason but for technical reasons. As technical images presently function, they lead on their own to a fascistic society.” (Flusser, 61).

We can see this in our current stage of network society. How the Internet of the 90’s with its wild unkempt character of creative freedom has given way to a more and more commercialized and structured system of control, filters, disinformation, and dataglut overload where one is typically shaped by the programs and circuitry of the appearance of freedom rather than freedom itself. Such applications ad Twitter or Facebook that offer users the freedom of communication become burdened by repetitions, redundancy, misinformation, banal chatter and gossip, doxa and stupidity rather than lively active and participatory conversations. When offered TeamSpeak or Ventrillo lounges to actually talk with people around the globe, one soon finds the conversations turn to childish trolling, sex, perversion, or any of a number of other trivial pursuit games. Instead of creativity we’ve become a monocular culture in denial. Even when the politics of events does come to the fore one is bound by peer pressure and anathema if one steps outside the prescribed limits of acceptability and political correctness. PC has become our Macarthyism, the policing of the net by well-meaning individuals has turned into a system of command, control, and verbal abuse and torture for others. Freedom of expression once taken for granted, even the most outrageous type is no longer tolerated, and the netwaves are searched for any racial, ethnic, political, religious, or other form of infraction and the perpetrator ostracized and for the most part virtually tar and feathered and run out of the netstream into oblivion for her/his infractions.

Ours is a fascistic society, centrally controlled by senders, in which traditional social structures have fallen apart and human beings constitute an amorphous, scattered mass. The images contribute to this fragmentation. (Flusser, 171) In fact Flusser will ask: “Is it possible to reorganize the images’ fascistic, totalitarian circuitry? Yes, telematics could make it possible. It is a technology of dialogue, and if the images circulated dialogically, totalitarianism would give way to a democratic structure.” (Flusser, 171) In other words if people would truly form technologies that allowed for dialogue rather than platforms for narcissistic display we might actually begin talking again, speaking to each other rather than blipping our opinions and sharing vids, images, cartoons, etc. What is needed is a new global platform not much different from your Facebooks, but one in which people could come together in pairs or groups or larger for actual conversations. Platforms like Reddit tend to cliques, same for blogs, and every other form of interactive system I’ve seen of the years. Why? Why do we seem to navigate to small ingrown cliques, identify with some ideological group, attack those unlike us or gang up on those critical of our ideas, etc. I find myself trying to explain and defend positions, until one realizes that for better or worse the net is anonymous to a point, and because of this trolling has increased over the years to the point that negative bashing has taken route and one is constantly appraising the legitimate from illegitimate conversations.

Flusser hoped for a global communication systems (telematic) that would be a “cybernetically controlled net in which the concrete elements would no longer consist of knots (single individuals) but of threads (interpersonal relationships). Along with this dissolution of the “I” into the “we” would come the dissolution of space and time into global simultaneity. It would be a society of simultaneous consensual decisions, a kind of global brain.” (Flusser, 172) What he envisioned was almost a Glass Bead Game of creativity, a realm of chamber music made of image and sounds in continuous creation: “What kind of life would such a celebratory one be? It would be like a consciously self-produced dream, a consciously envisioned life; an artificial life in art, life as play with pictures and sounds; a fabulous life that means the whole essay ends in a fable, albeit one that has now become technically feasible.” (Flusser, 173).

Sadly the net we’ve come to know is more of a smorgasbord of commercialization and trivial pursuit rather than cultural and collective participation and creativity. Still bound to command and control, notions of copyright, ownership, and property the net has become a capitalist project that is capturing the desires of the globe within a fascist system of surplus knowledge production that offers the people nothing and the top tier more and more economic power, while enticing the mass mind to electronic distraction, games of repetition, and solitary confinement in a realm of light that has little to offer other than the nightmares of late capitalism.

We remember from Hesse’s description that the Glass Bead Game had arisen slowly, evolved over centuries: “Here and there a scholar broke through the barriers of his specialty and tried to advance into the terrain of universality. Some dreamed of a new alphabet, a new language of symbols through which they could formulate and exchange their new intellectual experiences.” (Hesse, 36) Yet, something had been missing:

For all that the Glass Bead Game had grown infinitely in technique and range since its beginnings, for all the intellectual demands it made upon its players, and for all that it had become a sublime art and science, in the days of Joculator Basiliensis it still was lacking in an essential element. Up to that time every game had been a serial arrangement, an ordering, grouping, and confronting of concentrated concepts from many fields of thought and aesthetics, a rapid recollection of eternal values and forms, a brief, virtuoso flight through the realms of the mind. Only after some time did there enter into the Game, from the intellectual stock of the educational system and especially from the habits and customs of the Journeyers to the East, the idea of contemplation.

This new element arose out of an observed evil. Mnemonists, people with freakish memories and no other virtues, were capable of playing dazzling games, dismaying and confusing the other participants by their rapid muster of countless ideas. In the course of time such displays of virtuosity fell more and more under a strict ban, and contemplation became a highly important component of the Game. Ultimately, for the audiences at each Game it became the main thing. This was the necessary turning toward the religious spirit. What had formerly mattered was following the sequences of ideas and the whole intellectual mosaic of a Game with rapid attentiveness, practiced memory, and full understanding. But there now arose the demand for a deeper and more spiritual approach. After each symbol conjured up by the director of a Game, each player was required to perform silent, formal meditation on the content, origin, and meaning of this symbol, to call to mind intensively and organically its full purport. The members of the Order and of the Game associations brought the technique and practice of contemplation with them from their elite schools, where the art of contemplation and meditation was nurtured with the greatest care. In this way the hieroglyphs of the Game were kept from degenerating into mere empty signs.

Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial themes into unlimited combinations. For a long time one school of players favored the technique of stating side by side, developing in counterpoint, and finally harmoniously combining two hostile themes or ideas, such as law and freedom, individual and community. In such a Game the goal was to develop both themes or theses with complete equality and impartiality, to evolve out of thesis and antithesis the purest possible synthesis. In general, aside from certain brilliant exceptions, Games with discordant, negative, or skeptical conclusions were unpopular and at times actually forbidden. This followed directly from the meaning the Game had acquired at its height for the players. It represented an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself— in other words, to God. Pious thinkers of earlier times had represented the life of creatures, say, as a mode of motion toward God, and had considered that the variety of the phenomenal world reached perfection and ultimate cognition only in the divine Unity. Similarly, the symbols and formulas of the Glass Bead Game combined structurally, musically, and philosophically within the framework of a universal language, were nourished by all the sciences and arts, and strove in play to achieve perfection, pure being, the fullness of reality. Thus, “realizing” was a favorite expression among the players. They considered their Games a path from Becoming to Being, from potentiality to reality. (Hesse, 38-40)

This Yet, as Hesse would ironize, it is this very pursuit of perfection, and the ‘unio mystica’ which is its core program of contemplation that leads to totalitarianism and political and social control. The members of this Order are presented by Hesse as effete non-political secular monks:

The majority of the inhabitants of Castalia lived in a state of political innocence and naïveté such as had been quite common among the professors of earlier ages; they had no political rights and duties, scarcely ever saw a newspaper. Such was the habit of the average Castalian, such his attitude. Repugnance for current events, politics, newspapers, was even greater among the Glass Bead Game players who liked to think of themselves as the real elite, the cream of the Province, and went to some lengths not to let anything cloud the rarefied atmosphere of their scholarly and artistic existences. (Hesse, 193)

Whereas Hesse ironizes this monkish secular order of effete members who play their empty games of symbolic logic, Flusser will actually idolize it as the coming Telematic Society, saying, “something like the following can be predicted about the economic infrastructure of the coming society: action and trade will be largely automated and will not be interesting. The objects produced and consumed there will not impinge on a consciousness absorbed in images. People will neither work nor make works, and in this sense, society will approach a Platonic utopia. All will become kings, all will live in school (leisure) and will become philosophers.” (Flusser, 148)

There is also that theme of immortality and perfection: “an elite, symbolic form of seeking for perfection, a sublime alchemy, an approach to that Mind which beyond all images and multiplicities is one within itself”. A theme that pops up in our current Transhumanist, H++, and other pseudo-scientific pursuits of perfection and immortal dreams of escaping the entropic effect of dissolution and decay of entropy and disinformation. One could cite a 1001 books on such dreams of escaping the limitations of the organic into merging of mind to machinic life, or the cloning and replacement of body parts ad infinitum. Our elite dream of becoming long lasting narcissists, while excluding most of the masses from such costly and economically ineffable adventures in longevity.

He’s right about the automation of society, of how the rich and powerful corporations seek to displace humans from every last segment of the productive cycle in favor of faster and more reliable machines, but his vision of free time and a Platonic utopia is looking more like a realm of waste, expulsion, and masses of people left outside the Utopian enclaves of the super-rich .01% oligarchs and plutocrats. While at the same time extracting from the masses the remaining carbon taxes and living wages left of their serfdom amid the wreckage and ruins of earth as the climate warms and the seas rise living less and less agricultural and other resources for the starving, sick, and depleted humans of our dying earth.

Flusser will admit that “true catastrophes cannot be foreseen. They are emergencies. (160)”. He continues, saying:

I have proposed that human engagement consists in bringing about surprising adventures, catastrophes, and that telematics realizes this engagement, theoretically and technically. Telematic society is, then, a structure for realizing catastrophes. Therefore any attempt to predict it, as I have done here, is contradictory and self-referential—Ouroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail. (160)

Maybe that’s as good an image of our network society as we might have, a “contradictory and self-referential—Ouroboros, the snake that swallows its own tail”. In the end we’ve become locked in the circuits of a serpentine system of capital accumulation, that is sucking us dry of every last piece of information and knowledge of surplus value it can get from us. When it can gain no more from us it unplugs us, leaves us in our depleted vegetative state of apathy and mindlessness to our own devices without recourse or redress, nor any avenue of creative or political resistance left. Is it becoming too late to change things? Are we becoming so enamored of our Reality TV Celeb Presidential candidates that we’ve allowed the farce of a farce to takeover our lives without even a fight?


 

  1. Hesse, Hermann (2002-12-06). The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel . Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
  2. Vilém Flusser. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Univ Of Minnesota Press (February 24, 2011) First Published 1985.

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