Translation for a Recovered Text
This is the text of a talk given at The Lyric Picture House, Leeds, 20 October, as the commissioned work Film for an Abandoned Projector was screening. An audio version is available at www.pavilion.org.uk.
Translation for a Recovered Text
It’s a wonderful and unexpected honour to be asked to speak here tonight. Warm thanks to Simon [Lewandowski] for the lovely introduction. I’d like to thank Linzi Stauvers for a number of things, first for seeing a connection between Vilém Flusser and Lucy Skaer, and then for getting in touch with me, and then for being so quick and thoughtful and helpful about absolutely everything related to this visit, and finally for saying such kind and relevant things about my books.
I was invited on the basis of two translations – German to English — of books by the writer-philosopher-critic Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), both published at the University of Minnesota Press a few months ago. The titles are Into the Universe of Technical Images, and Does Writing Have a Future? It’s not easy to say exactly what sort of books they are—philosophy, in some ways, media studies, film studies, photography theory. They don’t settle very comfortably into any established field. And that may be why they tend to interest artists.
It’s useful to think of the books as two perspectives on the same vast cultural change – now very far progressed: Into the Universe of Technical Images is relatively buoyant in tone, optimistic about creative potential of “technical images,” all those communication technologies—photography, film, sound reproduction and digital synthesis—all those technologies that rely on a particular kind of apparatus, and that automate the production of images or sounds. The other book, Does Writing Have a Future? is largely a meditation on loss, specifically the threatened loss of everything stored in writing. As he put it in the Writing book, “It is fairly clear what will be lost in the transition from Gutenbergian to electromagnetic culture, namely, everything we treasure in the Western legacy.” (Writing, 53) For Flusser understands the new communication technologies to be fundamentally visual in form, and profoundly antagonistic to the linear form of reading and writing.
I’m not at all sure Flusser himself would have approved of my translations of his books—he once said that the only “true” translation is one that the author of the text undertakes himself—and he might easily have translated the books into English. But he didn’t. I did, in large part because they mattered to me. I wanted to read them slowly, to understand them. I did, and do have a sense of “translating” them into my own terms—terms I hope I share for the most part with other English speakers, but which also relate to my particular experience. For quite a few years, my job has been to get university level art students to read and write. Call it critical studies, contextual studies, art history—it’s always the written bit of a studio course, and it’s the object of a somewhat vague dissatisfaction, occasionally erupting into controversy.
When I first started lecturing, I thought it was just some modest misunderstanding that would sort itself out in time. Gradually, I became convinced it was the tip of an iceberg. By the time I began to read Flusser, I was really ready for a satisfying, philosophically grounded argument that text and images do NOT mix, ever. It rang true. Writing undermines images, he insisted. It was invented for the purpose of “explaining images away,” keeping them under control. It made me think of art history, quite a lot art criticism, and probably my own first attempts to write about images, moves by a writing-based culture to get—to keep—control of images. It made me think of the “heavy,” illustration-free texts of philosophy and law and history that wield such authority. But in its encounter with technical images, Flusser continues, writing has met its match: now images are faster and more efficient than writing. They “defeat” texts in the struggle – and it does always seem to be a struggle –to dominate the shape and tone of our thinking, feeling, judging and remembering.
Flusser translated constantly, although as far as I know he translated only his own texts. He wrote in four languages – spoke yet another (Czech), and drew often on a close familiarity with Latin, Greek and Hebrew. His concept of translation went even beyond all that. He implicitly endorsed the view – now far more widespread than it was at the time he wrote the books under discussion — that translation is a condition of any kind of understanding at all, something we are all doing all the time, whether between objects and words, between aspects of our own consciousnesses, between speakers within a single language community, between such communities, between media, between the past and the present—in short, we translate in order to gain consciousness of something in the first place, and then translate again to give that consciousness a form so as to convey it to another consciousness. I’ll suggest, guardedly, that his view of translation shares a great deal with that of George Steiner, in After Babel (1998). Steiner, too, came to a very broad understanding of translation, approaching something like interpretation, or “getting meaning from”. But I suspect Flusser remains unique in his emphasis on media as shaping, sustaining particular forms of consciousness, and in sensing such a huge gulf between images and writing. In his thinking, the difference is so intractable that the historical confrontations between them become the main turning points in his history of media: from its invention, writing gradually eroded the power of images; now, the tables are turned: images-–technical images—defeat writing.
As we become increasingly reliant on the new communications technologies, he suggests, we face a cultural shift on the scale of the one that followed the invention of writing. And that puts us in urgent need of a rare kind of translator. For if reading and writing do, as Flusser predicted, become exotic skills practiced only by a few specialists, the great insights, along with the subtle nuances of thought and feeling now preserved in writing and print are under threat. Toward the end of Writing book, he pleaded the need to “translate our thought world into a foreign one: from the world of spoken languages into that of ideographic images, from the world of logical rules into that of mathematical ones, and above all, from the world of lines into that of particulate nets” (Writing, 154). He is pleading for translations from the universe of historical consciousness into the universe of technical images. I take this to include a possible translation of film from one framework to another, from an understanding ourselves to be the subjects of film, to an understanding of film as a means of projecting ourselves out into the world. And I take Lucy Skaer to be the kind of translator he hoped for.
As I thought about Film for an Abandoned Projector in preparation for this talk, I began to see the project in terms of one fluid, if quite forceful gesture. It seemed like a kind gallant rescue operation, with the projector in the role the traditional “damsel in distress,” the artist as the knight in shining armour, marshalling the available forces – including very heavy machinery in this case – to set the projector “free,” to literally and figuratively shed light on it. Or her. Since we’re already quite a long way from conventional gender assignments for such heroic tales, I’d like to start referring to the projector as “her” right away. Abandoned as a dumb machine with no further commercial value, left in isolation, dust and darkness for decades in a derelict building, the projector now has some space and light and accessibility, some companionship. She has anthropomorphic formal features—stature, strength and elegance. Best of all, it seems that through the medium of film, that she has gained consciousness. She dreams and remembers.
Flusser’s “call for translators,” mentioned earlier, has the urgency of a distress call, which seems to lend this idea of “rescue” some support. And yet on reflection, rescuing is not the same as translating. In fact the rescue story implies a single context, rather than a move between two different contexts. It’s a little like saying that my translations had “rescued” Flusser’s texts from some kind of oblivion, when the books actually continue to be sold, read and discussed in German even as we speak. We need two contexts. In fact the tendency to revert to such a familiar little story might be something of a warning. It isn’t very easy to credit ourselves with multiple forms of consciousness, as Flusser does, and possibly even more difficult to grasp the possibility of moving, shifting from one to another.
In any case, Flusser’s account of translation, always grounded in phenomenology, draws his own experience as a translator. His “call for translators,” as it appears in the context of the Writing book, comes at the point he has himself in some sense “given up”: he can move between forms of consciousness supported by some five different natural languages, but he can not face the prospect of moving into the universe of technical images. I think he understands this to include the prospect of actually writing computer code, which he in turn takes to be a conceptually visual procedure. At one level, he seems to be asking for people who can transform texts—specifically alphanumeric, linear ones—into images, e.g. a novel into a film. But this really is not what Flusser is talking about. And that brings me to the first in a short list of annoying things about Flusser: he tells us how he reached his conclusions—reasoning from quite specific experiences. But he rarely gets specific about how we might go on to use those conclusions – how they might help to illuminate specific objects or experiences. He can describe, say, an opposition between “writing” and “images” in a fascinating, engaging, convincing way. But when a reader walks away from the book and tries to think through the actual images and writing she comes across in her everyday adventures, the lofty ideas invariably slip away. It’s as if some critical connective tissue, some bridging software had been omitted. “Which images? All images, all the time, or just under certain conditions? All writing? Just print?” It can make Flusser’s texts seem strangely distant and terribly abstract. Some students sometimes react to it very badly. It has taken me literally years to forgive him. But I see now that there is method in it, specifically a phenomenological method: Flusser never willingly separates any object, whether it is a work of art, a person, a medium or an idea, from the consciousness that intends it (intends—from phenomenology, roughly “is bound up with” or “brings into existence” or “is in a reciprocal relationship to”). When he is explaining his own reasoning, it’s fine: we all know it’s his consciousness that’s intending the writing or images or apparatuses. But because he is careful not to separate consciousness from its object, he is not willing to tell us how to interpret objects. He presents a comprehensive way of thinking about communication, but also is consistent in believing that another consciousness will intend the objects differently: he does not issue “operating instructions”.
Another exasperating thing about Flusser is that he didn’t cite his sources, which leaves us guessing about what he had or hadn’t read, or what or how much he relied on any particular person’s past thinking. We do at least know that his admiration for his fellow Prague native, Edmund Husserl, was deep and sustained, and that his approach to almost everything was, finally, phenomenological. Flusser explained his decision not to cite sources by claiming that such “scholarly apparatus” would make his ideas less accessible to his audience, less discussable.
So we don’t know whether Flusser read, for example, George Steiner. It is at least remarkable that both arrived at an understanding of language as the way human beings survive in the world. More remarkably still, both suspect that survival never depended on the capacity of speech or signs to give a “true” or “accurate” account of a situation, but almost exactly the opposite: that human life depends on rich, complex, absorbing fictions.
Steiner, in any case approaches translation as a reader, someone in a position to compare “texts” in two different languages, source and target. This seems closer to our position with respect to the work under consideration here tonight. Drawing on hundreds of actual translations—most between written languages, but also between, say, poetry and music, Steiner looked for a pattern, a way to think about translation as such. He carefully tests—and completely rejects—the “traditional” categorization of translation –- the tripartite scheme of word-for word, paraphrase, or free invention (319): it simply cannot account for the diversity, the complexity, the demands and responsibilities of moving between source and target. In its place, he adopts the hermeneia, a very old—Aristotelian—term for meaningful discourse, defined as “discourse that interprets”. It identifies four parts—maybe steps, maybe aspects of an interpretation. I actually was surprised at how helpful these were in thinking carefully about Film for an Abandoned Projector. The four steps are, first, trust (the translator believes that the “text” will reward the effort, that there is something significant in it); second, penetration—akin to attack or assault (the source is weakened, or thinned); third, embodiment (the target is expanded and to some extent distorted), and fourth, restitution (a return to a condition of exchange without loss to either side).
The idea of trust, at least, seems to figure prominently in Film for an Abandoned Projector, or possibly even Skaer’s work more generally. I’m thinking particularly of a decision to go from New York to Mexico to meet Leonora Carrington—a bit on the spur of the moment, with no real appointment, no assurance that any filming would even be possible, just a conviction that there was something significant to be recovered, and that any meaningful transformation of it would depend on direct exchange, interaction. Film for an Abandoned Projector, too, begins as an act of trust—first, perhaps, trust that there will be a suitable projector, intact, in the general area, and then that the value, the significance of “translating” it into the space and time of the contemporary city will repay the necessary investment of time and resources.
The second aspect of level of interpretation is by definition destructive: in this case the destruction was fairly literal—and extensive. The work involved cutting through walls, exposing the projector and disposing of the dust, debris, and mounds of loose film that had surrounded it for some three decades.
The next stage, Steiner calls it “embodiment,” turns the former Lyric Picture House into something that retains aspects of a theatre and also borrows something of the contemporary gallery or museum. By this I understand all the cleaning and lighting and wiring and plumbing and signing, the compliance with health and safety standards no doubt well beyond the most fastidious imagination thirty years ago. It changes the immediate neighbourhood, too, introducing a different pattern of coming and going. One imagines this film drawing a “public” sharply different from the one that was here in the 1980s.
The last of Steiner’s four steps, “restitution,” is about smoothing things out the disruptions that occurred in step 3, making it possible for the change to be absorbed, integrated into an ongoing, if subtly changed pattern of events. I know very little about what actually happened. But I feel pretty sure, first, that there must have been some conflicts along the way, and second, that “art” was a key factor in resolving them. Whether the institutions of art are your daily life, bread and butter, or a distant realm of inexplicable and vaguely irritating things, they can set a space apart and “get away with it,” in the sense of opening up a space to something rather odd and unexpected without actually threatening the neighbours.
Whether that four-step “reading” of the work as translation was convincing or not, it seems like we’re still not very clear about the identity of “source” and “target,” what we’re translating from and to. At the beginning of the talk, I described it as a move from the universe of historical consciousness to the universe of technical images. The terms are Flusser’s of course. And what I think can get very muddled when they’re out of his context—or even sometimes in context—is that they do not designate stable times or places or specific technologies or sets of conditions. It is not a simple move from past to present, or from using books to using computers. The two universes refer to forms of consciousness. And although I can’t prove it, I’m fairly sure he’s talking about two forms of consciousness that any one of us might have available—like two languages we might know, or strong skills we might have in two different media—say, drawing and film. I tend to think about it on the basis of my own experience with art students – most of them strongly visual thinkers – faced with the prospect of writing something fairly long and complicated. For some, it’s sheer misery—or completely impossible. For more, it’s a challenge they rise to. Those who do it and also go on to articulate what it is like to switch from studio work to writing repeatedly confirm that it really does involve a different form of consciousness.
Film for an Abandoned Projector doesn’t appear to have anything to do with writing. And it doesn’t, except that the projector was abandoned under historical conditions, a set of conditions in which it makes sense to abandon a machine that is no longer commercially viable, a way of thinking about time that is shaped by linear writing, a way of thinking about time that is still very much our own. I want to suggest that this work translates between two ways of understanding film, between “film as we know it” and film as it could be.
To me, at least, the material, physical projector refers to cinema. It isn’t gone, exactly: we still go out to see films in rooms dedicated to the purpose. It has been perhaps idealized in such production as Cinema Paradiso or The Last Picture Show: the projector is hidden behind a wall in the back of a dark theatre, filled with people who live in the neighbourhood, and who probably know each other. In the age of DVDs and i-players, it seems vaguely “past.” But in terms of the way we ordinarily understand film, it is very much present.
When Flusser criticizes film at various points in his writing, he is clearly referring to this use and understanding of the medium. In Into the Universe, for example, he considers a kind of social promise this sort of cinema holds out, namely the promise of “public, political assembly,” (52) where people living under roughly the same conditions meet, potentially exchange views, and reach some kind of new understanding. That is, film appears to be an exception to the general pattern of “mass” communication. But in fact it isn’t an exception, he says. It follows the same model as broadcast, itself modelled on print: it is “ampitheatrical” in structure. The model has roughly three key features: the message has a small number of senders and a very large number of receivers, the message moves in one direction, stopping with the receivers, and the receivers cannot change the film or make their own, alternative version, can’t effectively “respond”. He uses the image of a rays moving out from a centre.
This is the form of communication Flusser calls discourse—always to be distinguished from dialogue. Discourse disseminates and preserves information that a given social group has deemed worthwhile. It is essential to any society, but in itself, it does not produce new information. It is not creative. New information arises through dialogue—and only through dialogue. Dialogue can occur between parts of a given person’s memory, between a human and artificial memory, or – at it’s most effective and far-ranging –between human memories.
What lies at the heart of Flusser’s hopes and fears for the coming Universe of Technical Images is the question of dialogue: clearly technical images – and I think it’s fair say that he is usually thinking of film or video when he uses the term — present an enormously effective discursive tool. They are fast and thorough and reliable in spreading information far and wide. But can we use them dialogically, which is to say, creatively? Will we be able to use these powerful tools as we use, say, speech, or a telephone or drawings or writing, to trade thoughts that range beyond the capacities of a single human consciousness? Will we be able to get beyond expected and predictable things to the surprise of something new? Because if we cannot, Flusser suggests, if we continue to use technical images primarily as discursive tools, we risk losing the possibility of effective dialogue altogether. Old technologies—speech, perhaps drawing, certainly writing—may still generate wonderful ideas, but most of them seem to remain at the level of impotent gossip, rather than feeding back it into effective social change. We need a translator who can take technical images – in this case, film — from a consciousness in which it is used discursively, to another in which it as, at least potentially, dialogue.
Flusser is sure that writing, paper texts, newspaper and journals, are disappearing—and he is personally distressed by this. But he does not suggest that we resist. He does not believe that any “preservation” or “return” to historical, writing-based consciousness is possible—or ultimately desirable. Some, perhaps much of what will be lost deserves to be. At one point he writes that historical consciousness has very clearly demonstrated itself to be “murderous and mad.” He’s describing a state of mind that is never quite content in the present, never able to stop pressing forward, thinking ahead, getting to the end of the sentence and on to the next one, getting to the goal, the result. Far more terrifying for him than the diminishing force of writing is the prospect that discursively oriented technical images – automated communications technologies — become so tightly enmeshed with human thought and feeling that no one is able to effectively resist their “program”. And they are programmed for predictability and conformity. The danger is that everything, including our interactions with other people, will become predictable. Literally or figuratively, we will die of boredom.
Such a future is not inevitable—or at least Flusser didn’t think so when he was writing these books. In fact Into the Universe of Technical Images envisions the possibility of a joyous, intensely creative society grounded in the same new technologies. But only if we can think about technical images in a different way. Technical images don’t actually record extant meaning, he insists, and to treat them as if they did is both to give them unjustified power over us and to overlook the tremendous inventive power they might let us exercise. Technical images project meaning – meaning we generate–on to the world. “From subject to project” he sometime put it, referring to the way we could ideally transform ourselves from historical subjects into nodal points in a vast network, fielding and transforming and re-projecting information from any time, anywhere, continually in dialogue with others. What is at stake in translating between consciousnesses, then, is the hope of living creatively in the universe of technical images. Flusser would call it the very possibility of being truly human.
Film for an Abandoned Projector
In this work, as in Flusser’s phenomenological thought, there is no separation between “projector” and “film”. In contrast to cinema, where multiple copies of a film are expected to circulate among multiple projectors, this film is unique, made for, and, the work suggests, by this projector. Like the psychoanalytic concept of “projection,” it proposes that perception is shaped and filtered—and made meaningful—by the thoughts, memories, possibilities we send out into the world. We confer meaning. Consistent with this idea of film as projection, the images we see here do not exactly narrate a “history,” in the sense of events ordered in a causal or chronologic way, following “rules” that exists independently of any one of us. Rather than projecting events from some other time, that is, this projector is acting more like any one of us as we “intend” people and things in the environment. This model further seems quite readily available to any one of us: we, too, could be projectors. Although it won’t happen yet, because we haven’t actually begun to understand and use film in this way, we could, if we thought of ourselves as so many “projectors,” exchange images, memories, possibilities with this or another projector. In the historical model, the projector “delivers the discourse,” absorbs people’s attention, pins them, passive, to their seats, and generates profits for someone. In the new model, this projector has effectively become one of us. She appears to notice little details, to linger on moments of transition—doors and windows. She remembers things, or imagines how things might be in the future. She sometimes moves quickly from one context to another or circles back again in a characteristically and endearingly human sort of way. We readily recognize such patterns as the stuff of our own cognitive experience.
In this work, information still moves in one direction. There is still a “ray”. But I no longer have the sense of its being “discursive,” radiating out from a centre. I rather sense the possibility of parallel rays, rays that might issue from any or us, and that might possibly intersect, reaching across programmed chains of meaning towards others, and towards unpredictable, informative exchanges, toward something new.
Each of us will perceive and interpret—translate—the work differently, into our respective memories and structures of meaning. Each of us will make different associations with the projector, with it’s past life in the Lyric Picture House, and with its changed meaning now. I’ve proposed this work as a translation between the different “universes,” different forms of consciousness as Flusser conceived of them, in terms of the challenge he saw facing us. This work recovers the projector, literally from its earlier surroundings and figuratively from its status within a discursive, historical frame of reference. It reconfigures her as a model of a new consciousness, a way of projecting ourselves into the world, of making, rather than recording events, perhaps eventually of exchanging projected possibilities with others. If we can engage with film in some such way, if we can grasp technical images as tools of potential dialogue, we will be able to welcome the approaching universe of technical images with confidence, or even joy.