Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Vilem Flusser and the Vampire Squid

Peter Godfrey-Smith, writing at the Boston Review, recently considered the value of what he calls “what it’s like” philosophical hypotheticals in a recent essay, “On Being an Octopus” (via Andrew Sullivan). Defending against “materialists” who may regard the practice as misguided (for we can never truly know how some other thing experiences its experiences), Godfrey-Smith suggests that such thought experiments help to strike the right balance between thinking of our minds as either more or less private and mysterious than they really are.

Vampire_squid Even if such investigations into the cognition of other species is as misguided as those materialists may claim, I think that Vilem Flusser (1920-1991), whose recently translated treatise on Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, commonly called the “Vampire Squid", partakes of that genre, may be acquitted of the charge.

I wrote a little about Flusser about 2 years ago, in a post on Madmen and subjectivity. Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is a short essay (about 75 pages) he wrote in 1987 and that has just recently been translated by Valentine A. Pakis and published by the University of Minnesota Press as Volume 23 of Cary Wolfe’s great Posthumanities series.

Flusser’s attempt at assuming the mind of a vampire squid is explicitly a fable and his reasoning explicitly metaphorical and deliberately non-scientific:

Certain aspects of human Dasein [Being] are evident in this structure [vampyroteuthic Being], and certain others appear in it utterly distorted. Perhaps then a game can be built out of distorting mirrors that would enable us to recognize the basic structure, distorted and from afar, of our own Dasein. By playing a “reflective” game of this sort, we should hope to gain a new perspective of ourselves that, though distanced, is not “transcendent” [my emphasis]. It will not be transcendent, that is, because its standpoint will differ from that of science, which would adopt an “objective” position by floating above the world and looking down upon mankind. On the contrary, our analysis of humans will be made from the perspective of the vampyroteuthis, which coexists with us in the world. It is our co-being (Mit-sein). (9-10)

Two impulses animate the prose of Vilem Flusser in my estimation. The first is his sense of adventure—he equates philosophy with exploration and expedition and laments the use of well-worn concepts and the consolation of familiar ideas. The second, related to the first, is his insight that familiar things—customary, habitual things—render themselves invisible. Home and habit, he writes in “Taking Up Residence in Homelessness", “like a cotton blanket, …cover up all phenomena.” And “custom”, he writes in Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, “is a shroud that conceals everything” (36).

I definitely relate to this second impulse—the idea that when things grow familiar they grow invisible. It is the same to say “you never know what you have until it is gone,” although in Flusser’s case, “what you have” are habits of thought.

So the idea behind the essay Vampyroteuthis Infernalis is to estrange ourselves from our customary ways of thinking—to look at ourselves from the perspective of the alien and to render visible the too familiar patterns of behavior in which we engage. “The further removed a phenomenon is from its describer, the more objectively describable it is” (16).

And ironically, over the course of the essay, the vampire squid comes more and more to represent the human unconscious and those tendencies towards dissemblance, cannibalism, suicide, and fascism that we judge, from the comfort of our civilized, liberal well-lit sitting rooms, to be monstrous.

In other words, what Flusser attempts is a critique of the ego from the perspective of the id.

Significantly, however, and perhaps in agreement with Peter Godfrey-Smith, Flusser ultimately recommends striking a balance between the arrogance of regarding the vampire squid part of ourselves as savage and in need of redeeming, and the pull to identify too strongly with that part. In either case, the risk is to lose sight of some essential part of ourselves—to consign that part to the abyss and trust it to behave itself there, unwatched.

On the contrary, Flusser endeavors to render the mind absolutely visible and in that pursuit must render the mind absolutely strange.

No comments:

Post a Comment