continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 2.2 / 2012:

The Ground We Tread

Vilém Flusser

continent. 2.2 (2012): 60–63

Translated by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes.

From the forthcoming book Post-History, Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing, 2013.

It is not necessary to have a keen ear in order to find out that the steps we take towards the future sound hollow. But it is necessary to have concentrated hearing if one wishes to find out which type of vacuity resonates with our progress. There are several types of vacuity, and ours must be compared to others, if the aim is to understand it.

The incomparable is incomprehensible. If we affirm that our situation is incomparable, we give up the effort to grasp it. The comparison that imposes itself is to the vacuity of the Baroque. There are innumerable traces in the present that evoke the Baroque. We bear the mark of the same somber rationalism (logics, informatics, cybernetics), and of the same magic and fanatic irrationalism (mass media, phantastic ideologies). But there is a decisive difference. Humanity advanced over a stage during the Baroque. All of its gestures, even the most sincere, were marked by theatricality. The vacuity that resonated under its feet was of the void under the stage. Baroque man represented.1 For example he represented faith in waging religious wars. Baroque vacuity was the consequence of a medieval loss of faith in dogmas. Our vacuity is different. We do not represent anything. Our world is not a stage. We are not actors, and if we act, it is not to represent a drama, but to divert the audience's attention and our own from the subjects that really matter. We act like criminals that try to hide their tracks. We pretend. Our progress is a farce. The vacuity under our feet is not Baroque. We have not lost our faith in dogmas: we have lost faith in ourselves. We are as counter-reformists as was the Baroque (we want to cover up the recent revolution with warm cloths), but for different reasons.

Although comparable with the Baroque, in certain aspects, our situation is in fact incomparable to any other. That is because an incomparable, unheard of, never before seen event happened recently, which emptied the ground we tread. Auschwitz. Other posterior events; Hiroshima, the Gulags, are nothing but variations of the first. Therefore every attempt to grasp the present leads to the following questions: how was Auschwitz possible? How can we live after this? Such questions relate not only to the ones directly or indirectly responsible, and not only to those who were directly or indirectly hit by it: they relate to everyone who takes part in our culture. Because what is so incomparable, unheard of, never before seen and therefore incomprehensible in Auschwitz, is that it was there that Western culture revealed one of its inherent virtualities. Auschwitz is a characteristic realization of our culture.

It is neither the product of a particular Western ideology, nor of specific “advanced” industrial techniques. It springs directly from the depths of culture and of its concepts and values. The possibility to realize Auschwitzes is implicit within our culture from the very start: the Western “project” already harbored it, although as a remote possibility. Auschwitz lies within the initial program of the West, which progressively realizes all of its virtualities as history unfolds. That is why the question that Auschwitz poses before us is not: how did it happen? It serves no purpose to “explain” Auschwitz. The fundamental question is: how was it possible? Because what is being questioned is not the extermination camp, but the West. Thus one other question: how to live within a culture henceforth unmasked?

Everything that happened afterwards resonates with such a question, with such vacuity. Every economic, social, political, technical, scientific, artistic, philosophic event is corroded by such an undigested question. The distance that separates us from the event does not mitigate the abyss, it erodes it even deeper. Because the distance progressively dissolves the aura of the horror that envelops the event, and it progressively opens up a vision of the scene. It progressively reveals that there all of our categories, all of our “models”, suffered an irreparable shipwreck. Auschwitz was a revolutionary event, in the sense that it overthrew our culture. Insofar as we seek ways to cover up such revolution with trips to the moon or with genetic manipulations, we are counter-revolutionaries: we are inverting the course of history in order to cover up the past.

The unspoken in Auschwitz is not the mass murder, it is not the crime. It is the ultimate reification of people into amorphous objects, into ashes. The Western tendency towards objectification was finally realized and it was done so in the shape of an apparatus. The SS were functionaries of an extermination apparatus, and their victims functioned in function of their own annihilation. The extermination camp's program, once it started functioning, developed in an automatic fashion, autonomous from the decisions of the initial programmers, even if, as it effectively did, it contributed to the defeat of the programmers. The SS and the Jews functioned one in function of the other like cogwheels. The models for such functionality were provided by the highest of Western values: the SS behaved like “heroes” and the Jews like “martyrs”. This is an apparatus that functions at a borderline situation: objective even beyond death.

What has just been said is intolerable. We cannot accept it and so we mobilize arguments against it. Good arguments. The SS behaved like criminals: they removed the gold teeth from the cadavers. The Jews behaved like victims: they rose up in the Warsaw ghetto. Such arguments are true, but they do not reach the nucleus, the “eidos” of the phenomenon: they do not grasp it. Although there was “normal” behavior: (theft, murder, revolt, heroism), there was also “abnormal” behavior: functionality during a borderline situation. And this is what counts. There, for the first time in the history of humanity, an apparatus was put into operation that was programmed with the most advanced techniques available, which realized the objectification of man, together with the functional collaboration of man.

The previous horrors committed by Western society against other societies and against itself (and there are many) were crimes. They were violations of Western models of behavior: anti-Christian, anti-human, irrational. So that it is possible to condemn them and continue to be Western, even if the horror is so colossal, such as the enslavement of Africans. However, it is not possible to condemn Auschwitz and continue to adhere consciously to the West. Auschwitz is not a violation of Western models of behavior, it is, on the contrary, the result of the application of such models. Our culture allowed its mystifying mask to fall and must be rejected in toto if we admit that the purpose of every culture is to allow for the convivial existence of men that recognize each other mutually as subjects.

However: it is not possible to reject one's own culture. It is the ground we tread. Those who seek to reject their own culture (as Nietzsche did in rejecting Judeo-Christianity), fall victim to madness. Those who reject their culture's models, are incapable of grasping the world in which they live. Cultural models are traps to catch the world. Those who seek to substitute their own models for other's (for example by shouting “Hare Krishna”) will find that such exotic models have already been caught by the very models to be substituted. There is no exit: we are condemned to use our models and to serve such models, even after they have been unmasked, if we wish to continue living. The only alternative would be to commit suicide. That is: we must continue our economic, political, scientific, artistic, philosophic activities despite Auschwitz. We must continue progressing despite everything.

That is why there are those who recommend that we should seek to forget what happened, that we should repress the event. They sustain that enough has already been said and written about the subject and that it is time to “overcome” it. But such an ostrich strategy reveals itself disastrous. Because the result is that Auschwitz transfers itself from Poland of the 1940s to the post-industrial society of the future. What characterizes the extermination camp is precisely that it is not an event that can be “overcome”, because it is the first realization of an inherent virtuality within the Western project, which will repeat itself in other formats unless we become totally conscious of it. The advantage (if this is an appropriate term) that Auschwitz offers us, is to give us a concrete example of the West’s tendency towards the apparatus. For the first time in our history it is possible for us to experience concretely the utopia inherent in our culture. For the first time in our history we have the experience that utopia, no matter in what form, towards which we progress, is the extermination camp.

Everywhere we can observe, as of now, the emergence of variations on the theme “Auschwitz”. Everywhere apparatus spring, just like mushrooms after a Nazi rain, from the ground that has become rotten. Certainly: such new apparatus are not externally similar to the Nazi extermination camps. Their labels are different, as are the ideologies that pretend to inspire them. Even the apparatus that admittedly envision extermination, such as the Gulags, the ones of a future nuclear war, or the ones that functioned in Vietnam, claim to be different from Auschwitz. Others claim to be “friends of mankind”, such as the scientific, technical and administrative apparatus. But such labels and such ideologies are deceptive and serve only to cover up the essence of apparatus. They are all just like Auschwitz, black boxes that function with complex inner-workings in order to realize a program. They all function according to an inertia that is inherent to them and such functionality escapes, from a certain point, the control of their initial programmers. In a final analysis such apparatuses function, all of them, towards the annihilation of all their functionaries, including their programmers. Exactly because they objectify and dehumanize man.

Thus Western culture reveals itself as a project that seeks to transform itself into an apparatus. What characterizes the West is its capacity for an objectifying transcendence. Such transcendence allows for the transformation of all phenomena, including the human phenomenon, into an object of knowledge and manipulation. The space for such transcendence opened up thanks to Judeo-Christianity and resulted, in the course of our history, in science, technique and recently, in Auschwitz. The ultimate objectification of the Jews into ashes is the ultimate victory of the spirit of the West. It is social technique taken to the extreme. Certainly: the transformation of men into ashes is primitive, incipient social technique that progressively refines itself. It will be followed by less brutal objectifications, such as the robotization of society. But it does not matter which form it will assume: it will always be an objectifying manipulation of mankind. Although the apparatus of the immediate future are not necessarily incineration ovens, all will be, and not only the nuclear ones, apparatus for the annihilation of man.

The Western program contains several virtualities, not only apparatus. Numerous virtualities have not yet been realized. In this sense the “history of the West” has not ended yet, the Western game continues. But all not-yet realized virtualities are infected by apparatus. That is why it has become currently impossible to engage ourselves in theprogress of culture.” As it would be to engage ourselves in our own annihilation. We have lost our faith in our culture, in the ground we tread. That is: we have lost faith in ourselves. It is this hollow vibration that follows our steps towards the future. What remains is for us to analyze the event “Auschwitz” in all its details in order to discover the fundamental project that realized itself there for the first time, so that we may nurture the hope to project ourselves out of that project. Out of the history of the West. This is the “post- historical” climate in which we are condemned to live from hereon.

1. In Portuguese representar (to represent) also means “to act” or “to play a role.”