Stephen Turner – Settler Dreaming


Stephen Turner, “Settler Dreaming,” Memory Connection 1.1: The Memory Waka (2011): 115-26. Available here.

Augustus Earle, Distant View of the Bay of Islands, New Zealand (c.1827-28).
Rex Nan Kivell Collection, The National Library of Australia (nla.pic-an2820815).


This article focuses on collective memory in a place that has been radically transformed by settlement and where memory itself is part and parcel of the make-over. Remembering isn’t passive or received but active, and forms a process of settlement too. For visitors, says Walter Benjamin, a new country is exotic, and the object of an exoticising gaze, whilst for natives the place is perceived through layers of collective memory. The problem for settlers is that the place they come to consider their own is originally exotic to them. They now have a memory of a place made-over in their own exotic image of it — at first a picturesque landscape occupied by a disappearing indigenous people. Just how an exoticised experience of landscape and its indigenous inhabitants became “us” New Zealanders is forgotten today in declaring settler nature — “our” identity and character — to be of nature, now primordial and pure, and quite organic. Benjamin’s formulation suggests a corrective to cultural organicism and the constructed public memory of popular national identity.

The exotic place of settlers’ perception, even when familiarised and domesticated, is the lens though which settlers view history. Their collective remembering makes- over the place in terms of the experience of its difference to them, not in terms of Maori experience of European difference to Maori. The gap in perception is foreclosed by the make-over, which itself constitutes national popular memory. The remembering activity of settler culture makes all the more real a made-over place while occluding its making over. An industry of historians, or memory machinery, is needed to support settler place-making, working to shape and contain memory, and to secure it against real knowledge of the making over of place. I will explore how it does so by explaining three components of national popular memory: re-enactment, remediation, and cultural plagiarism.

John Barr Clarke Hoyte. The Bay of Islands (c. 1873). Watercolour. Christchurch Art Gallery: Te Puna o Waiwhetu.


Stephen refers to Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” trans. Harry Zohn, Illuminations (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1968) 253-63 [online], in particular, section 9:

My wing is ready for flight,
I would like to turn back.
If I stayed timeless time,
I would have little luck.

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
Ich kehrte gern zurück,
Denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
Ich hätte wenig Glück.

Gerherd Scholem,
‘Gruss vom Angelus’

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating [my emphasis]. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (257-58)

Paul Klee. Angelus Novus (1920).  Intaglio printing with acidic watercolor on drypoint. Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


The Bricoleur and the Engineer

Verbatim from Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962):

the “bricoleur” is . . . someone who works with his [or her] hands and uses devious means compared to those of a craftsman. . . . (16-17)

. . . bricolage being D.I.Y. (Interestingly, L-S always uses scare-quotes about “bricoleur,” to suggest that the term is figurative.)

L-S contrasts the bricoleur and the engineer:

[He or she] is adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but, unlike the engineer, he [or she] does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His [or her] universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his [or her] game are always to make do with “whatever is at hand,” that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relationto the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions. (17)

This is to say,

the engineer is always trying to make his way out of and go beyond the constraints imposed by a particular state of civilization while the “bricoleur” by inclination or necessity always remains within them. (19)

Mythical thought is analogous to bricolage:

The characteristic feature of mythical thought is that it expresses itself by means of a heterogeneous repertoire which, even if extensive, is nevertheless limited. It has to use this repertoire, however, whatever the task in hand because it has nothing else at its disposal. Mythical thought is therefore a kind of intellectual “bricolage.” (16)

But so is the self.

L-S goes on to contrast the “savage” (or mythopoetic) mind with the “scientific” (or conceptual) mind.

  • the “savage” is a bricoleur, assembling patchwork objects by adapting “the means at hand” (by adding, deleting, substituting and transforming them);
  • the “scientist” is an engineer, creating objects “out of nothing,” “out of whole cloth.”

The artist is “half-way between” (22).

One last note: Derrida, himself—like most postmoderns—a bricoleur, comments with his characteristic irony that “the odds are that the engineer is a myth produced by the bricoleur” (360).


See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind, trans. George Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1962; Chicago: UCP, 1966) 17ff. (excerpted online at “The Savage Mind“) and Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Human Sciences,” Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass, 2nd rev. ed. (New York; London: Routledge, 2001) 360.

Take Care of Everything (Our Duty of Care)

Annibale Carracci, Pan (c. 1592)

The saying μελέτη τὸ πᾶν [melete to pan] has been attributed to Periander, Second Tyrant of Corinth (c. 628-588).

It has sometimes been mistranslated as “practice makes perfect” (melete “care, practice, exercise”), but it is better translated “take care of everything.”

It is the motto of Heidegger’s Mindfulness (1997; 2006, 3, likewise in Nietzsche vol. 3 [1989; 1991] and the Heraclitus seminar [1970; 1979]), which he translates into German as “Habe das Ganze im Sinn“: “take into care beings as a whole” (to pan “the all, the whole,” i.e. beings as a whole). But, more importantly, the saying drives his reading of the relation of human beings to being in Basic Concepts (1981; 1993). It prefaces his “Elucidation of the title of the lecture ‘Basic Concepts,'” in particular, his discussion of the claim (Anspruch) of such basic or “ground-concepts” (Grund-Begriffe) upon us . . .

From the time when the essential configuration of Western history . . . begins to unfold, a saying is handed down to us that goes μελέτη τὸ πᾶν, “Take into care beings as a whole” [das Seiende im Ganzen]—that means, consider that everything depends upon the whole of beings, upon what addresses [anspricht] humanity from there. Always consider the essential, first and last, and assume the attitude that matures us for such reflection. Like everything essential, this attitude must be simple, and the suggestion that intimates this attitude (which is a knowing) to us must be simple as well. It suffices for this suggestion to distinguish what humanity, having come to itself, must attend to. (3)

. . . and it drives his “Discussion of the ‘Is,’ of Beings as a Whole” (21ff.), broadly, that

if we attempt to think the whole of beings at once, then we think . . . that the whole of beings “is,” and we consider what it “is.” We think the whole of beings, everything that is, in its being.

He argues that to what “is” belongs the currently actual, the not actual or possible, and the necessary. “Taking into care beings as a whole” requires that we must acknowledge all three aspects.

But there is another threesome at work here: Meletē (Μελέτη, “Care”) was one of the original three Boeotian Muses, along with Mnēmē “Remembrance” and Aoidē “Song” the essential aspects of poetry—or the “saying of being” for Heidegger (Pausanias, The Description of Greece 9.29, sec. 2). As Gary E. Aylesworth suggests in his introduction to Basic Concepts,

Melete has been interpreted as the discipline or practice necessary to learn the art, Mneme as the retention required for recitation and improvisation, and Aoide as the poetic song itself, the culmination of the other two aspects. In the earliest tradition of Greek thinking, care, remembrance, and song were understood as religious powers. (xii)

Three aspects of saying: care, remembrance and song, of which more later . . .

Heinrich von Kleist: not the Marquis of the O, but of the Arrow

On the Marionette Theatre” by Heinrich von Kleist [1777-1811] (translated by Idris Parry) [pdf; alternative translation by Thomas G. Neumiller]

[“Über das Marionetten Theater,” Berliner Abendblätter (12-15 Dec. 1810)]

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (1509-10)

Kleist suggests that the Garden of Eden could have a second gate: when we return to innocence via experience.

“[I]n the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794)

Interestingly, Philip Pullman made the same connection between Kleist and Blake in his Preface to the Folio Society edition of The Northern Lights (2008):

Where Kleist’s essay differed from [the “sickly nostalgia” of most children’s stories] was in its bracing optimism. We can’t go back, he says; as with the original Paradise, an angel with a flaming sword guards the way; if we want to return we have to go all the way around the world, and re-enter Paradise through the back gate, as it were. In other words, since we cannot dwell forever in the paradise of childhood, we have to go forward, through the disappointments and compromises and betrayals of experience, towards the fully conscious kind of grace that we call wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent.

But the dialogue can also be read as an ironic play on the dichotomy of classicism and romanticism, one in which a moral problem—the problem of knowledge of good and evil—is recast as an epistemological problem (as it always is by Kantians—and all those ethico-epistemologists who take knowledge as value-laden, from Socrates on). It becomes about what we know/can know and how we come to know it, and the whys and wherefores of both.

Kleist sides with neither classical idealism (Ideas are absolute: Idea-lism) nor romantic imagination (the I is Absolute: I-magination). For him, like Fichte, human beings desire an Absolute without ever being able to identify with It; individual existence hangs on this difference. Thus, consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself: we cannot know noumena, or things-in-themselves; the phenomenal world, or the world of things, arises from self-consciousness (I am conscious of myself . . .), the activity of the ego (. . . as an I . . .) and moral awareness (. . . because I am called to limit my freedom out of respect for the freedom of the other). The subject is intersubjective: I know I’m someone because I know I’m not someone else.

We might say: human beings are transcendent beings, not infinitely “transhuman,” i.e., in part divine (beyond-the-world), but finitely transhuman, i.e., always projecting (in-the-world), whether we take them to be always already embedded cognitively and socially, or desiring, or evolving by self-modifying or –versioning [transcendent, “climbing beyond,” from L. transcendere, from trans- “across” + scandere “climb”] (. . . hence Duchamps’ stroboscopic self). We are, to misread Heidegger’s ethico-epistemological axiom, “ecstatic beings in the world.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912)

Thus, consciousness is the golden arrow of desire (or rather, desire [other-direction] precedes repulsion [self-protection]), always directed and dialogic.


See the new edition of Kleist: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, ed. Peter Wortsman (Archipelago, 2009).

The “Objectively Offered Object” of Ghérasim Luca

Ghérasim Luca (1913-94) was a member of the Romanian Surrealist Group (1940-47), which stood for “a reinvention of the surrealist imagination” through “a critical approach to dreams, the eroticisation of the proletariat, the poetic appropriation of quantum physics, and the perpetual re-evaluation of surrealism through the negation of negation” (The Passive Vampire, with an Introduction on the Objectively Offered Object, a Found Portrait and Seventeen Illustrations, ed. and intro. Krzysztof Fijalkowski [Bucharest: Les Éditions de l’Oubli, 1945; Librarie José Corti, 2001; Prague: Twisted Spoon, 2008]; see Twisted Spoon and Salonica).


We know that the Surrealists loved objets d’art of various species:

  1. “old-fashioned manufactured objects,” i.e., “found object[s],”
  2. “natural object[s],”
  3. “striking arrangement[s],”
  4. “machine[s],” and
  5. “being-objects.”

(Richard Coyne, Technoromanticism: Digital Narrative, Holism, and the Romance of the Real [Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2001] 192, citing Sarane Alexandrian, Surrealist Art, trans. Gordon Clough [London: Thames & Hudson, 1970] 141)

For Luca and his co-conspirator Dolfi Trost, creating such objects allows us to move beyond traditional, i.e. plastic (3D) and subjective, art practice by the use of “rigorously applied scientific procedures”:

We have returned to the problem of knowledge through images . . . by establishing a clear distinction between images produced by artistic means and images resulting from rigorously applied scientific procedures, such as the operation of chance or of automatism. We stand opposed to the tendency to reproduce, through symbols, certain valid theoretical contents by the use of pictorial techniques, and believe that the unknown that surrounds us can find a staggering materialization of the highest order in indecipherable images. In generally accepting until now pictorial reproductive means, surrealist painting will find that the way to its blossoming lies in the absurd use of aplastic, objective and entirely non-artistic procedures. (“Dialectique de la Dialectique“)

(How absurd, i.e., aleatory, non-intentional and meaningless, the objects were is debatable—especially because, as we’ll see below, they were “offered” to a particular person.)

And they represent a response to the outworn nature of modernity, embodied in his motto: “Everything must be reinvented, nothing exists anymore in the whole world” (quoted in Inventor of Love & Other Writings, trans. Julian and Laura Semilian [Black Widow; Commonwealth Books, 2009]; see Ghérasim Luca: Reinvent Everything).

Hence Luca invented—or rather, reinvented, or better, redesigned—the “objectively offered object” or OOO (sometimes shortened to “offered object” or OO) as an objet d’art offered in a particular spirit. The OOO was made while thinking of the person for whom it was intended—like a kind of fetish (an object to which is attributed inherent value or power); thus it served as a vehicle for sentimental or intellectual exchange and became a qualitative description that could be interpreted like a rebus. They were usually assemblages or composites of found and chosen elements that aimed to reveal the hidden relationships between subjects and reveal the workings of an “active collective consciousness” by describing, revealing, invoking a desire, eros being what we might call the “circulatory” principle of society.

An object focusses the movement of desire:

When offering an object to someone, external causality responds more rapidly to internal necessities. Erotic relations between myself and other individuals are more quickly established though the mediation of the object.

A found or made object becomes offered (an OOO) on the slightest pretext, i.e. one of little interpretative value:

For a found or made object to be transformed into an offered object, and for it to be able to change its nature in line with the new relationships established in the interior life of the individual seeking a new balance between the internal and external, the pretext to this transformation must have an interpretive value that is, if not always negligible, at least very limited. The offering of an object might have as its setting the pretext of decoration, or a celebration, or some other external and circumstantial accident, just as the manifest life of a dream uses diurnal remnants and random internal and external stimuli to provide the sleeper a framework of no interpretational value within which the action of the dream can unfold.

Note that the OOO is not a gift—because gifts aren’t erotic:

In today’s society, the offered object bears no qualitative relation to the gift. The gift is an object that is bestowed only after having been stripped of its objective erotic character. Its emotive force is neutralised by its standardisations, which has allowed the bourgeoisie to thwart the differentiation of individual tendencies and thus offer one more argument in support of contemporary morality, which is presented as the only all-encompassing morality possible.


“The Letter L,” The Passive Vampire 39.

The Letter L embodies Luca’s desire to form a rapport with André Breton. As he puts it,

The doll found in the shop window and the envelope full of riddles in the drawer only imposed their presence, violently, into my life at the moment when the desire to know B. [Breton] located in them the overt substitute means for doing this. The incubus found its full realisation through the use of these two magic objects in which I was also shortly to discern sorcery’s demonic power. (44-45)

It is constructed from an antique wooden doll, with hundreds of pictorial riddles from an almanac randomly pasted over its torso and right leg, and with another doll’s head attached upside down to its pelvis. Razor blades are inserted into the head of the second doll’s head, one sliced into its eye (see Mute).


This is the first sentence of The Passive Vampire, which embodies Luca’s fetish for objectivity (though it couldn’t be described as non-subjective):

Objects, these mysterious suits of armour beneath which desire awaits us, nocturnal and laid bare, these snares made of velvet, of bronze, of gossamer that we throw at ourselves with each step we take; hunter and prey in the shadows of forests, at once forest, poacher, and woodcutter, that woodcutter killed at the foot of a tree and covered with his own beard smelling of incense, well-being, and of the that’s-not-possible; free at last, alone at last with ourselves and with everyone else, advancing in the darkness with feline eyes, with jackals’ teeth, with hair in lyrical, tousled ringlets, beneath a shirt of veins and arteries through which the blood flows for the first time, we’re lit up inside ourselves by the giant spotlights of the very first gesture, saying what must be said, doing what must be done, led among the lianas, butterflies, and bats, like the black and white on a chessboard; no one would dream of forbidding the black squares and the bishop—the ants vanish, the king and queen vanish, the alarm clocks vanish in turn, we reintroduce the walking stick, the bicycle with odd wheels, the timepiece, the airship, keeping the siphon, the telephone receiver, the shower head, the lift, the syringe, the automatic mechanisms that deliver chocolate when numbered buttons are pressed; objects, this catalepsy, this steady spasm, this “stream one never steps in twice” and into which we plunge as into a photograph; objects, those philosopher’s stones that dis- cover, transform, hallucinate, communicate our screaming, those stone-screams that break the waves, through which the rainbow, living images, images of the image will pass, I dream of you because I dream of myself, hypnotically I aim at the diamond contained within you, before falling asleep, before you fall asleep, we pass through each other like two ghosts in a marble room whose walls are hung with life-sized portraits of our ancestors, with the portrait of a mediaeval knight next to the portrait of a chair gazing at the two fossils of ghosts on the walls of this spectral museum, and if it is true that we are shadows, then the people and the objects all around us here are nothing but the bones of shadows, the shadows of shadows. . . . (71-72)

Elsewhere, he puts it more directly:

In the world in which I like to breathe, a box can take on the same psychic content of a beloved woman; the delirious and fetishistic love between a man and a box thus casts a prophetic, thaumaturgic light onto the outer world. (81)


N.B. (1): Luca also invented cubomania, a “surautomatic” method of making collages in which a picture or image is cut into squares and the squares are then reassembled without regard for the image.

Cubomanie IV.


N.B. (2): Gilles Deleuze frequently cited Luca’s poetry as a prime example of stuttering in language, which for him represents the highest poetic function:

I believe that Ghérasim Luca is one of the greatest French poets, and of all time. He certainly does not owe this to his Romanian origin, but he makes use of this origin to make French stammer in itself, with itself, to carry the stammering into the language itself, not simply the speaking of it. Read or listen to the poem “Passionément,” which has been recorded as well as published in the collection Le Chant de la Carpe. One has never achieved such an intensity in the language, such an intensive use of language. A public recitation of poems by Ghérasim Luca is a marvellous and complete theatrical event. (“One Manifesto Less,” The Deleuze Reader, ed. Constantin V. Boundas [New York, NY: Columbia UP, 1993] 213)

In “Passionément” (1973), Luca literally stutters for several minutes (“Pas pas paspaspas paspasppas ppas pas paspas”) before he is able to utter the poem’s climactic final lines, which turn on the affirmation, “I love you passionately.” According to Deleuze, in this performance “[t]he entire language spins and varies in order to disengage a final sonic block, a single breath at the limit of the cry I LOVE YOU PASSIONATELY [Je t’aime passionnément]” (“He Stuttered,” Essays Critical and Clinical, trans. Michael A. Greco and Daniel W. Smith [Minneapolis, MN: UMP, 1997] 110 [partially viewable], quoted in Ronald Bogue, Deleuze on Literature [London; New York, NY: Routledge, 2003] 101).

Jared Wells at Begayer la Langue has a blog on recordings of Luca’s poetry; Ubuweb has several recordings.

Boyle’s Air-Pump

(See the wiki.)

From 1844-ish, Robert Boyle (1627-91), alchemist and natural philosopher, was among band of inquirers known as the “Invisible College” (later the Royal Society of London), who devoted themselves to the cultivation of Bacon’s “new philosophy” (Novum Organum [1620]): the Baconian method of inductive reasoning (by which a “phenomenal nature,” e.g., heat, is reduced to a “form nature,” or cause that makes things hot), though he would never have admitted to being a student of any person or school, taking himself for a experimentalist par excellence. He relied on the documentation of first-hand observation of phenomena in the closed space of the laboratory, rather than hypothesis or calculation, as in the “Atomical” and Cartesian systems.

Reading in 1657 of Otto von Guericke’s air-pump, Boyle set himself, with the assistance of Robert Hooke, to devise improvements in its construction. The result was the “machina Boyleana” or “Pneumatical Engine,” finished in 1659, with which he began a series of experiments on the properties of air, an account of which was published as New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine) (1660). He describes 43 experiments on the effect of air on various phenomena: the effects of “rarified” air on combustion, magnetism, sound, and barometers, and the effects of increased air pressure on various substances. He lists two experiments on living creatures: “Experiment 40,” which tested the ability of insects to fly under reduced air pressure, and “Experiment 41,” which demonstrated the reliance of living creatures on air for their survival (see the Wright image below).

(Among Boyle’s critics was the Jesuit Franciscus Linus [1595–1675], and it was while answering his objections that Boyle first proposed the law that the volume of a gas varies inversely to the pressure of the gas, the law that has taken his name.)

For Bruno Latour, Boyle’s innovation was to rely on a “parajudicial” metaphor (rather than logical, mathematical or rhetorical method), whereby

credible, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, the matter of fact, even if they do not know its true nature.

What counts here is

not . . . these gentlemen’s opinion [a doxa, strictly speaking], but rather the observation of a phenomenon produced artificially in the closed and protected space of a laboratory. (We Have Never Been Modern [1991; Harvard UP, 1993] 18)

In effect, then, as Donna Haraway has suggested, the witnesses become “invisible” and “transparent”; but, in fact, “[v]ision requires an instrument of vision; an optics is a politics of positioning,” i.e., the good gentlemen bearing witness aren’t sitting on their invisible hands (“Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature [Routledge, 1991] 193 [183-203]). As Joseph Wright’s representation of Experiment 41 shows, affect positions the witnesses—man, woman and child alike in the enlarged socius of the late eighteenth century—vis-à-vis the object under examination.

Joseph Wright, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768)

This laboratory [L. workroom] is a new world: a designed micro-environment open to examination, a “theatre of proof”—not unlike a classroom, perhaps (Latour 18). And it is not an inside, an epistemological low pressure zone, of which society and politics are the outside that locate—or press upon—it, because “[n]o science can exit from the network of its practice” (ibid., 23). It is a microcosm where science and politics mingle—in the form of the quasi-objects of culture. That science and politics can be kept apart is the pretense of modernity, viz . . .

Thus, Boyle gives us a repertoire for speaking about nature (as constructed in the laboratory): “experiment,” “fact, “evidence” and “colleagues”—as Hobbes does for culture, i.e., politics (as embodied in the Leviathan): “representation,” “sovereign,” “contract,” “property” and “citizens” (ibid., 25).


For Peter Sloterdijk, the air-pump might well have whispered something more sinister (see Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton [2002; Semiotext[e], 2009; see “Airquakes” from Sphären]). In “Air,” Latour summarises Sloterdijk’s argument that chemical warfare (“military climatology”), which united terrorism, product design and environmental thinking, ushered in the age of “atmoterrorism” on 22 April 1915 (Terror 19, 23):

[A]ir has been made explicit; air has been reconfigured; it is now part of an air-conditioning system that makes our life possible.

Latour could have argued that this episteme was ushered in—or announced, at least—by Boyle 350 years earlier.

“About the Word Design” by Vilém Flusser

Flusser argues that once we become aware of design—as deceptive, and bridging art and technology—art and technology are demystified, i.e. de-signified (stripped of their “value” or significance, i.e. their “truth [meaning] and authenticity [aura]”; cf. Walter Benjamin) . . .

Vilem Flusser

Thilo Mechau, [Portrait of Vilèm Flusser,] Vilèm Flusser Archive

Give me but one firm spot on which to stand, and I will move the earth (Archimedes)

About the Word Design (1993)

In English, the word design is both a noun and a verb (which tells one a lot about the nature of the English language). As a noun, it means—among other things “intention,” “plan,” “intent,” “aim,” “scheme,” “plot,” “motif,” “basic structure,” all these (and other meanings) being connected with “cunning” and “deception.” As a verb (“to design”), meanings include “to concoct something,” “to simulate,” “to draft,” “to sketch,” “to fashion,” ‘to have designs on something.” The word is derived from the Latin signum, meaning “sign,” and shares the same ancient root. Thus, etymologically, design means “de-sign.” This raises the question: How has the word design come to achieve its present-day significance throughout the world? This question is not a historical one, in the sense of sending one off to examine texts for evidence of when and where the word came to be established in its present-day meaning. It is a semantic question, in the sense of causing one to consider precisely why this word has such significance attached to it in contemporary discourse about culture.

The word occurs in contexts associated with cunning and deceit. A designer is a cunning plotter laying his traps. Falling into the same category are other very significant words: in particular, mechanics and machine. The Greek mechos means a device designed to deceive—i.e. a trap—and the Trojan Horse is one example of this. Ulysses is called polymechanikos, which schoolchildren translate as “the crafty one.” The word mechos itself derives from the ancient MAGH, which we recognize in the German Macht and mögen, the English “might” and “may.” Consequently, a machine is a device designed to deceive; a lever, for example, cheats gravity, and “mechanics” is the trick of fooling heavy bodies.

Another word used in the same context is “technology.” The Greek techne means “art” and is related to tekton, a “carpenter.” The basic idea here is that wood (hyle in Greek) is a shapeless material to which the artist, the technician, gives form, thereby causing the form to appear in the first place. Plato’s basic objection to art and technology was that they betray and distort theoretically intelligible forms (“Ideas”) when they transfer these into the material world. For him, artists and technicians were traitors to Ideas and tricksters because they cunningly seduced people into perceiving distorted ideas.

The Latin equivalent of the Greek techne is ars, which in fact suggests a metaphor similar to the English rogue’s “sleight of hand.” The diminutive of ars is articulum—i.e. little art—and indicates that something is turned around the hand (as in the French tour de main). Hence ars means something like “agility” or the “ability to turn something to one’s advantage,” and artifex—i.e. “artist’—means a “trickster” above all. That the original artist was a conjurer can be seen from words such as “artifice,” “artificial” and even “artillery.” In German, an artist is of course one who is “able to do something,” the German word for art, Kunst, being the noun from können, “to be able” or “can,” but there again the word for “artificial,” gekünstelt, comes from the same root (as does the English “cunning”).

Such considerations in themselves constitute a sufficient explanation of why the word design occupies the position it does in contemporary discourse. The words design, machine, technology, ars and art are closely related to one another, one term being unthinkable without the others, and they all derive from the same existential view of the world. However, this internal connection has been denied for centuries (at least since the Renaissance). Modern bourgeois culture made a sharp division between the world of the arts and that of technology and machines; hence culture was split into two mutually exclusive branches: one scientific, quantifiable and “hard,” the other aesthetic, evaluative and “soft.” This unfortunate split started to become irreversible towards the end of the nineteenth century. In the gap, the word design formed a bridge between the two. It could do this since itis an expression of the internal connection between art and technology. Hence in contemporary life, design more or less indicates the site where art and technology (along with their respective evaluative and scientific ways of thinking) come together as equals, making a new form of culture possible.

Although this is a good explanation, it is not satisfactory on its own. After all, what links the terms mentioned above is that they all have connotations of (among other things) deception and trickery. The new form of culture which Design was to make possible would be [i.e.,] a culture that was aware of the fact that it was deceptive [i.e., designed]. So the question is: Who and what are we deceiving when we become involved with culture (with art, with technology—in short, with Design)? To take one example: The lever is a simple machine. Its design copies the human arm; it is an artificial arm. Its technology is probably as old as the species homo sapiens, perhaps even older. And this machine, this design, this art, this technology is intended to cheat gravity, to fool the laws of nature and, by means of deception, to escape our natural circumstances through the strategic exploitation of a law of nature. By means of the lever—despite our body weight—we ought to be able to raise ourselves up to touch the stars if we have to, and—thanks to the lever—if we are given the leverage, we might be able to lever the world out of its orbit. This is the design that is the basis of all culture: to deceive nature by means of technology, to replace what is natural with what is artificial and build a machine out of which there comes a god who is ourselves. In short: The design behind all culture has to be deceptive (artful?) enough to turn mere mammals conditioned by nature into free artists.

Archimedes' Lever

This is a great explanation, is it not? The word design has come to occupy the position it has in contemporary discourse through our awareness that [Thus?:] being a human being is a design against nature. Unfortunately, this explanation will not satisfy us. [No:] If in fact design increasingly becomes the centre of attention, with the question of Design replacing that of the Idea, we will find ourselves on uncertain ground. To take one example: Plastic pens are getting cheaper and cheaper and tend to be given away for nothing. The material they are made of has practically no value, and work (according to Marx, the source of all value) is accomplished thanks to smart technology by fully automatic machines. The only thing that gives plastic pens any value is their design, which is the reason that they write. This design represents a coming together of great ideas, which—being derived from art and science—have cross-fertilized and creatively complemented one another. Yet this is a design we don’t even notice, so such pens tend to be given away free—as advertising, for example. The great ideas behind them are treated with the same contempt as the material and work behind them.

How can we explain this devaluation of all values? By the fact that the word design makes us aware that all culture is trickery, that we are tricksters tricked, and that any involvement with culture is the same thing as self-deception. True, [+] once the barrier between art and technology had been broken down, a new perspective opened up within which one could create more and more perfect designs, escape one’s circumstances more and more, live more and more artistically (beautifully). But [-] the price we pay for this is the loss of truth and authenticity. In fact, the lever is about to lever all that is true and authentic out of our orbit and replace it mechanically with perfectly designed artefacts. And so all these artefacts become as valuable as plastic pens, become disposable gadgets. This becomes clear when we die, if not before. Because despite all the technological and artistic arrangements we make (despite hospital architecture and death-bed design), we do die, just as other mammals die. The word design has managed to retain its key position in everyday discourse because [i.e.,] we are starting (perhaps rightly) to lose faith in art and technology as sources of value. Because we are starting to wise up to the design behind them.

This is a sobering explanation. But it is also an unavoidable one. A confession is called for here. This essay has had a specific design in mind: It set out to expose the cunning and deceptive aspects of the word design. This it did because they are normally concealed. If it had pursued another design, it might, for example, have insisted on the fact that “design” is related to “sign”: a sign of the times, a sign of things to come, a sign of  membership. In that case, it would have given a different, but equally plausible, explanation of the word’s contemporary situation. That’s the answer then: Everything depends on Design.

About the Word Design” [“Vom Wort Design“]. The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Vom Stand der Dinge: Eine Kleine Philosophie des Design]. Trans. Anthony Mathews. 1993. London: Reaktion Books, 1999. 17-21. Also translated as “On the Word Design: An Etymological Essay.” Trans. J. Cullars. Design Issues 11.3 (Autumn 1995): 50-53. Also published in Alex Coles (ed.), Design and Art (London: MIT P, 2007) and Ben Highmore (ed.), The Design Culture Reader (London: Routledge, 2008).

The annotations are mine.