Thinking in Exile: the Nomadic Philosophy of Vilém Flusser, Azimuth VII (2019), nr. 13: 9-14

Preliminary notes

Exile (v.) c. 1300, from Old French essillier, exile, banish, expel, drive off (12c.) … from Latin exilium/exsilium, banishment, exile; place of exile, from exul, banished person, from ex-, away. … The second element derives possibly from the Proto-Indo-European root *al- (2), to wander (source also of Greek alaomai, to wander, stray, or roam about). It might also be a derivative of ex-sulere, to take out to the root.”

Online Etymology Dictionary

A history of modern philosophy would be incomplete without a reference to the notion of exile. This holds especially true for the German philosophy of the 19th and 20th century. Karl Marx wrote and published Das Kapital during his exile in London where he had moved in June 1849 and would remain for the rest of his life. In the late 1930s, the logical positivists fled Germany and Austria for Britain and the United States. One of them, Rudolf Carnap, immigrated to the United States in 1935 and became a naturalized citizen in 1941. From 1936 to 1952, he was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. Similarly, as the anti-intellectual threat and the political violence of Nazism increased, the founders of the Frankfurt School, among them Adorno and Horkheimer, decided to move the Institute for Social Research out of Germany, first to Geneva and then to New York City. After World War II, some members decided to return to Europe, others like Herbert Marcuse preferred to remain in the United States. Both the logical positivists and the Frankfurt School had a profound impact on the countries that had welcomed the exiles. This is also the case with Vilém Flusser who is considered by some one most important Brazilian philosophers of the 20th century.[1]

Exile is a forceful condition that can leave the outcast stranded on foreign shores utterly incapable of finding her/his bearings again. However, it can also be the point of departure for a completely new existence. The exile can re-invent her/himself in the new surroundings managing to give a new sense to her/his life and by this to become an inspiration for those that did not have to go through the painful but revealing experiences of loss to which exiles and migrants alike are generally subjected. Furthermore, exile does not necessarily have to be an existential dead end. As the example of Adorno, Horkheimer and many others proves, an exile cannot only return to his country of origin, but exert a renewed influence in the reclaimed homeland, the very culture that forced her/him to leave. The Frankfurt School, for instance, played a major role in the student uprising that took place in Europe in the 1960s.

In this respect, Flusser is a good example of the devious and surprising twists and turns of fate. In his case, the return to Europe led to a third and fourth life – if we consider his childhood and youth in Prague and the thirty years spent in Brazil as the first two stages. Flusser returned in 1972 and spent about ten years traveling through Europe, taking part in symposia, but also enjoying his new European life. In the early 1980s, began his meteoric ascent that turned him within a few years into one of the most influential philosophers of media and communication theory of the late 1980s and 1990s. However, it was not in France, where he spent the last twenty years of his life, that he became famous. He achieved his greatest success in Germany where he is considered an early prophet of new media and the Internet. This earned him the title of a ‘digital thinker’, a trendy designation that captured the Zeitgeist of the early 1990s and opened Flusser and his thinking many doors. However, it has also successfully precluded other ways of access to his complex many-faceted work. Ironically enough, the very culture that had killed his whole family in the concentration camps laid the basis for his late unexpected international success. Flusser enjoyed the attention of the media, but a bitter taste remained to the very end of his life. He died at the height of his fame on November 27, 1991 in a car accident at the Czech-German border.[2]

Flusser’s philosophy, both as a specific way of thinking and writing, his unique style, are unthinkable without the multiple and repeated experiences of deracination and exile. The parable of his restless live assumes an exemplary character in this context. Driven away from the original rootedness in the home soil of Prague, his path first lead him into the involuntary emigrant existence of the exile. He overcame this alienating experience of uprooting, which temporarily drove him to the brink of despair and suicide, with a commitment to the multicultural Brazilian environment. This was followed by his return to Europe. The road from Europe to South America was enforced by deadly circumstances, but the leap back to Europe was a conscious decision, a second, self-imposed exile. In an unpublished letter to David Flusser from February 19, 1973, he writes about some of the reasons for his return to Europe.” (a) I have exhausted the country for my work, I publish probably too much there, and run into censorship everywhere, and my academic career has become boring to me. In addition, I feel everywhere the limitations of intellectual work in a context of underdevelopment. (b) The political and economic situation of the country invariably invites people to engage in activities that are much too dangerous at my age and could also harm my children.”[3] Sadly enough, present day Brazil seems to be drifting again into the dangerous waters of intolerance and hatred that forced Flusser out of Prague and back to Europe again. In 1964, the military staged a coup in Brazil. The dictatorship stayed in power until 1985.

Let me point to two aspects of Flusser’s life and work that have been fundamentally shaped by the experience of exile. First of all, there is his life-long practice of self-translation. Flusser wrote his texts in four different languages: German, Portuguese, English and French. He began writing in German but soon added Portuguese and English, in an attempt to publish his texts in Brazil and the United States. When he moved back to Europe and settled in France in the early 1970s, he also added French. The expansion of the scope of his multilingual writing practice – the use of a growing number of languages accompanied by a growing number of text variants – is thus directly linked to his early deracination and his return to Europe. In an unpublished letter to Mira Schendel from September 27, 1974, – at a time when his practice of self-translation had become a daily habit, if not an obsession or an addiction – he writes: „I translate systematically. I write everything in German first, the language that pulsates most strongly in my center. I then translate into Portuguese, the language that articulates the social reality to which I have committed myself. Then, I translate into English, the language that best articulates our historical situation and possesses the richest repertoire. In the end, I translate into the language, in which I would like to publish the text. I retranslate it, for instance, into German or try to translate it into French or write a new English version.”[4]

The bilingual author Raymond Federman, who writes in English and French, described the necessity of continuous self-translation in terms of a sense of incompleteness that arises whenever a text has been finished in one language. In Flusser’s case, this sense of incompleteness must have been even stronger as he used four instead of two writing languages.

Flusser used self-translation not only to distance himself from his texts, to check the consistency of the argumentation, and to develop a new style but also to cleanse the German language contaminated by Nazism and to reinvent and recreate himself on foreign ground. Translation is an ars moriendi, that is, a strategy to re-elaborate the trauma of exile, over and over again. The traumatizing experience of exile is thus profoundly inscribed in the very structure of his multilingual thinking. The second aspect, which again links the existential experience of exile to a specific way of thinking, is the phenomenological notion of epoché.

Exiles are outcasts who do not belong anywhere. They live in between cultural and political allegiances. However, exile allows you to put everyday life into phenomenological brackets. The nomadic experience of exile rescinds and overrides the rules of a normal pacified, sedentary existence by making you aware of the fundamental absurdity of human existence. Flusser links the experience of the exile to Heidegger’s notion of thrownness, Geworfenheit. Human thrownness is generally not perceived but simply accepted. Exile, however, offers the opportunity to withdraw from oneself and one’s life in order to view both from the outside. It is the extra-territorial standpoint from which another view of one’s existence becomes possible, an indispensable prerequisite for an authentic commitment to the new culture, which Flusser defines as a projection, Entwurf. It is therefore the very alienating experience of exile that ultimately allows for an active and creative redefinition of one’s existence.

In Flusser’s view, the very nature of human beings is fundamentally shaped by an experience of not belonging, by a distancing movement from the environment in which s/he is born or happens to be living. In this sense, the experience of exile only accentuates and foregrounds an already existing existential condition. In his essay, “The Cedar in the Park”, he writes: “Thus: strange (and foreign) is whoever affirms their own self in the world that surrounds them. […] The cedar is a stranger in my park. I am a stranger in France. Man is a stranger in the world.”[5] In one of his last works, he describes the existence of the Vampyroteuthis infernalis at the bottom of the sea in terms of exile. Like human beings, cephalopods are alienated from their origin and forced to live in a border situation. Humans are helplessly exposed on the surface of the earth and Vampyroteuthes banished to the depths of the oceans: “We are estranged from earth, and it from the sky. Analogous alienations.”[6]

The seven contributions of this issue of Azimuth dedicated to the life and work of Vilém Flusser explore different ways in which the experiences of exile, nomadism and multiple migration have influenced his thinking and writing. In “O trauma histórico como ponto de partida do diálogo Flusseriano” (The Historical Trauma as the Point of Departure for Flusser Notion of Dilaogue) Eva Batličková examines through an analysis of the play Saul that Flusser wrote in his youth and the notion of dialogue how historical trauma affected his life and career as a writer. Christoph Ernst discusses in “Rootlessness and the Social Imaginary – On Vilém Flusser’s Understanding of Tacit Knowledge” the notion of tacit knowledge with regard to Flusser’s understanding of migration. Erick Felinto’s “Oceanic Medium: Technology, Identity and Maritime Imagination in Vilém Flusser” sets out from Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival (2016) which narrates the arrival of an alien race of extraterrestrials and discusses it in view of Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis infernalis. In “Bodenlosigkeit: Living between Rootedness and Uprooting”, Rainer Guldin explores Flusser’s notion of Bodenlosigkeit and its relationship to the dialectics of rootedness and deracination. Daniel Irrgang’s, “The Improbable Image: Traces of Information Aesthetics in Vilém Flusser’s Image Theory” focuses on some origins of the concept of techno-image and Camila Mozzini-Alister analyzes in “Cutting Tongues: Friendship and Parrhesia in the Letters Exchanged by Vilém Flusser” the correspondence between Vilém Flusser, Milton Vargas, and Dora Ferreira da Silva. Finally, Francesco Restuccia’s “Conversazioni sull’uomo nuovo: Flusser e il dialogo con i pensatori italiani” (Conversations on the New Man: Flusser and the Dialogue With Italian Thinkers) focuses on Flusser’s intellectual and personal relationship with Ernesto Grassi, Luigi Bagolini, Bernardo Bagolini and Angelo Schwarz. Two texts by Vilém Flusser that are particularly relevant with respect to exile, migration and intellectual nomadism – “Exile and Creativity” and “In Search of Meaning (Philosophical Self-Portrait)” translated into Italian by Marco Carassai – complete the issue.

Rainer Guldin

Università della Svizzera Italiana, Lugano

[1] Gustavo Bernardo, „One of the most important Brazilian philosophers”, in Flusser Studies 03, November 2006

[2] See Rainer Guldin and Gustavo Bernardo, Vilém Flusser (1920-1991). Ein Leben in der Bodenlosigkeit. Biographie, transcript Verlag, Bielefeld, 2017 (see also Gustavo Bernardo and Rainer Guldin, O homem sem chão: a biografia de Vilém Flusser, Annablume, São Paulo 2017).

[3] Vilém Flusser, Unpublished correspondence, Vilém Flusser Archive, Berlin (reference number: CORRESP. 79_6 (3130), 19/02/1973 (translation RG).

[4] Vilém Flusser, Unpublished correspondence, Vilém Flusser Archive, Berlin (reference number: CORRESP. 31_6 PORT. BR ARTIST2 3/3, 27/09/1974 (translation RG).

[5] Vilém Flusser, The Cedar in the Park, in Natural:Mind, Minneapolis, Univocal Press 2013, p. 42.

[6] Vilém Flusser, Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2012, p. 23.