Digital Caricature

A new article by Stephen Turner and me about the digitas published in DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly (link):

For Vilém Flusser, philosopher of technology, the advent of photography heralded the return of the image from its subjection to the linearity of written language. Here we extend his concept of the “techno-image” (successor of the pre-historical hand-drawn image and the historical printed word), to consider the digital image-text that today dominates reading and writing. Our question: Can we reader-writers think the digitas, or are we doomed to perform its functions in an “automati[c]” or “robotiz[ed]” fashion, as Flusser put it, so that, if anything, the digitas now “thinks” us? The short answer to our question is as follows: we can think the digitas, but only if we consider it, firstly, as a kind of writing (“digital orthography”) and, secondly, as a caricature of thinking, both impoverished and, dare we say it, funny (“digital caricature”).

Sommer, E. "Portrait Vilém Flusser". Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

Sommer, E. “Portrait Vilém Flusser”. Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.


The University Beside Itself

Out now, a new essay by Stephen and I, “The University Beside Itself,” from Re-imagining the Creative University for the 21st Century, ed. T. Besley and M. Peters (London: Routledge, 2013) 49-59:

[I]n and through seismotic construction, which is to say through attention to the unstable ground of the university, the nature of the class and classroom is reconstructed to form a new disposition. Such a practice, we suggest, places teaching – education, in fact – at the centre of the university, rather than research or management. Construction is not just a matter of learning learning; it makes the ability to ask after grounds the basis of being educated, and it makes being able to question a key social value of education. Without it, we think that a society lacks the wherewithal for self-transformation. The experience of transformation, or being transported, is to be beside oneself. And to be beside someone, as one is in a classroom, is to find one’s thinking transposed through a dialogic doubling. This is why classrooms matter, and cannot simply be replaced by downloaded notes or lectures. The “live” classroom, animated by open-ended dialogue rather than end- stopped programming, offers a creative and collaborative capacity that is chancy and risky, or, in any case, uninflected by the discursive consistency of the university template – how it is that you are supposed to meet the aims, objectives and outcomes of a course, or at higher levels, the mission statement and strategic plan of the university. (53-54)

It’s available through SpringerLink:

Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing in TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses

My essay on the essay has been published at Text: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses. It’s called “Terra (In)cognita: Mapping Academic Writing“:

Students and teachers alike bemoan the sorry state of academic writing, as both readers and writers. Nonetheless, they are loath to venture beyond what they take to be the well-known territory of the academic (read: expository) essay for fear of going astray, or unsettling their readers. Here I aim to map the academic essay as it is practised for the most part . . . but also as it might be practised. I offer a cartography — and something of a history — of the ‘point-first’ and ‘point-last’ essay. The former dominates the academy, but the latter is truer to the origin of the essay. Point-first essays allow writers to show what they know, to negotiate known territory (terra cognita), hence their dominance in the academy; point-last essays enable writers (and thereby readers) to find out what they think, to navigate unknown territory (terra incognita), where lie dragons . . . or riches.


Spheresphaira (Gk)
  1. ball, Homer, Odyssey 6.100.
  2. any globe (Parmenides 8.43), thus, sphere, as a geometrical figure, etc., esp. the terrestrial globe, earth (Strabo 2.3.1).
  3. hollow sphere or globe: in ancient physics, from the time of Anaximander, of the spheres believed to revolve round the earth carrying the heavenly bodies, and according to the Pythagoreans arranged after the intervals of the musical scale (Cicero, Republic 6.18; Aristotle, Metaphysics 1073b18); thus, sphaira aplanês, the sphere of the fixed stars, and hai planômenai sphaira, a planetary sphere (Plutarch 2.1028a).


Athanasius Kircher’s reconstruction of the sphere of Archimedes, imitating the motion of the planets with the aid of magnets.

From Magnes, Sive de Arte Magnetica (1643 ed.) 305.

sphairopoiia (Gk)

  1. artificial sphere (hence the thaumaturgic globe-makers of Alexandria of the third century BC, the first of whom was apocryphally Archimedes; see Evans and Harley & Woodward);
  2. making of the heavenly spheres

cf. sphairopoièsis, “invented” by Peter Sloterdijk to describe the generation of the characteristic shape or “thought-figure” of globalisation in its metaphysical (à la the Greek philosophers), territorial (à la the Iberian voyagers) and terrestrial (à la transcendental capitalism) forms (see “Geometry in the Colossal: The Project of Metaphysical Globalization“).

Archimedes’ hefting of the idea of the globe to the status of ruling metaphor in Greek science realized Plato’s metaphysical (or, as Sloterdijk might say, cosmogonic) theory of the cosmos in the Timaeusand, to a lesser degree, Aristotle’s On the Heavens, which, alas, superceded Plato’s through the undue influence of Ptolemy’s cosmology (the Almagest). And he found us a place to stand—which was, of course, no place at all (he was playing Atlas, as all modern scientists do) . . .

Archimedes' Lever

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth”

(δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω).

From Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7.

cf. Einstein: “it is the theory that decides what we can observe” (Timothy Ferris, The Red Limit: The Search for the Edge of the Universe [Harper Collins, 1983]) and μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)” and “‘About the Word Design’ by Vilém Flusser.”

μοχλός (lever) and μηχανή (machine)

Models for understanding the role of writing or writing studies in denaturalising and reworking the university, i.e. writing—Derrida calls it “philosophy”—as potentially a lever on the university (which in itself is a lever on nature—or rather, on culture or second nature; any lever being a machine that is designed to deceive, to cheat nature or to become nature), the question being the degree to which or which part of the old university might serve as the fulcrum on which the lever rests to vault us into the new one  . . .

1. The lever (μοχλός, mochlos)

Archimedes: “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth” (δῶς μοι πᾶ στῶ καὶ τὰν γᾶν κινάσω [from Pappus of Alexandria, Synagoge 7])

Vilém Flusser on the lever: “The Lever Strikes Back” (The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design [Reaktion Books, 1999] 51-54) and “About the Word Design” (Shape of Things 19). The lever, like all technologies, cheats the laws of nature by exploiting them, thereby “to replace what is natural with what is artificial”:

Flusser Mochlos

c.1300, from O.Fr. levier “a lifter, a lever,” agent noun from lever “to raise,” from L. levare “to raise,” from levis “light” in weight, from PIE base *le(n)gwh- “light, easy, agile, nimble.”

Jacques Derrida on the lever (“Mochlos; or, the Conflict of the Faculties” [1980; 1984], Eyes of the University: Right to Philosophy 2 [Stanford UP, 2004] 83-112 and Richard Rand [ed.], Logomachia: The Conflict of the Faculties [U NE P, 1992] 1-34):

To found (or find) something new in “history, morality or politics” involves a compromise with the old, the old thus serving as “a support [hypomochlion] for a leap” toward the new (hypomochlion: the point of support or fulcrum of a lever, centre of rotation of a joint, or point of rest of a process). The difficulty lies “in determining the best lever,” i.e. mochlos, “something, in short, to lean on for forcing and displacing” (or to throw into the eye of a Cyclops, perhaps). As a result, “the most serious discords and decisions have to do less often with ends . . . than with levers.” See Derrida 2004, 110-11:

Derrida Mochlos 110

Derrida Mochlos 111


2. The machine (μηχανή, mechane)

Henry Ward Beecher: “A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. He that invents a machine augments the power of man and the well-being of mankind” (Proverbs from Plymouth Pulpit).

Vilém Flusser on the machine: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs” (Leonardo 19.4 [1 Oct. 1986]: 329-32), and About the Word Design” (17). A machine is designed to deceive.

Flusser Mechos

1549, “structure of any kind,” from M.Fr. machine “device, contrivance,” from L. machina “machine, engine, fabric, frame, device, trick,” from Gk. makhana, Doric variant of mekhane “device, means,” related to mekhos “means, expedient, contrivance,” from PIE *maghana- “that which enables,” from base *magh- “to be able, have power.” Main modern sense of “device made of moving parts for applying mechanical power” (1673) probably grew out of 17c. senses of “apparatus, appliance” (1650) and “military siege-tower” (1656). Machinery (1687) was originally theatrical, “devices for creating stage effects;” meaning “machines collectively” is attested from 1731.

The University in Ruins (Not)

The problem

Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Harvard UP, 1996), the blurb:

It is no longer clear what role the University plays in society. The structure of the contemporary University is changing rapidly, and we have yet to understand what precisely these changes will mean. Is a new age dawning for the University, the renaissance of higher education under way? Or is the University in the twilight of its social function, the demise of higher education fast approaching?

We can answer such questions only if we look carefully at the different roles the University has played historically and then imagine how it might be possible to live, and to think, amid the ruins of the University. Tracing the roots of the modern American University in German philosophy and in the work of British thinkers such as Newman and Arnold, Bill Readings argues that historically the integrity of the modern University has been linked to the nation-state, which it has served by promoting and protecting the idea of a national culture. But now the nation-state is in decline, and national culture no longer needs to be either promoted or protected. Increasingly, universities are turning into transnational corporations, and the idea of culture is being replaced by the discourse of “excellence.” On the surface, this does not seem particularly pernicious.

The author cautions, however, that we should not embrace this techno-bureaucratic appeal too quickly. The new University of Excellence is a corporation driven by market forces, and, as such, is more interested in profit margins than in thought. Readings urges us to imagine how to think, without concession to corporate excellence or recourse to romantic nostalgia within an institution in ruins. The result is a passionate appeal for a new community of thinkers.

This sounds familiar.

The solution

Jeffrey J. Williams outlines the history of the idea of the university and offers a solution to this ruinous situation: teaching the idea, history, literature and sociology of the university in the university, specifically, in English departments that, as writing zones, are supposed to know well what is ostensibly the language of the university: writing (“Teach the University,” Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture 8.1 [2007]: 25-42).

Williams Intro

Jacques Derrida offers a radical—and perhaps utopian—response, arguing for “The University without Condition,” in which the “new humanities” will play a vital role, because they are concerned with humanity, human rights and crimes against humanity, the same concerns that “organise” mondialisation (globalisation), “which wishes to be a humanisation” (Without Alibi, trans. Peggy Kamuf [Stanford UP, 2002]):

University Without Condition 202


University Without Condition 203


What, then, is the role of the humanities in the university without condition? It is to exercise the right to speak without condition—“to say everything” and “to say it publicly,” as literature does (cf. Jacques Rancière, who might say that whereas the “police” operates via consensus, “politics” operates via dissensus; the university without condition would be “political”—or “redistributed” according to what he calls the “democratic heresy”):

University Without Condition 205(205)

(So I read Williams as more pragmatic than Derrida—or perhaps he’s just less Continental: for Derrida, literature, the writing of différance, will take over from philosophy as the language of university; for Williams, it seems, it’s writing per se.)

This solution is complicated if we view the historical situation in which we find ourselves as not amenable to humanistic, literary or writerly enquiry, as Vilèm Flusser suggests it is in “The Codified World” (Writings [U MN P, 2002] 35-41). His epochal reading of codes is as follows:

  1. premodern/prehistorical: image—the scene (imagination: magic, myths)
  2. modern/historical: writing—the concept (conception: explanations, theories, ideologies)
  3. postmodern/posthistorical: techno-image—the program (techno-imagination: models, games)

For Flusser, we face a “crisis of values” at the transition to techno-images because the old written “programs,” politics, philosophy and science, not to mention art and history, have been disempowered (41).


I would say: the university is not in ruins—a certain idea of the university might well be: of the university as “literary” research institution, certainly, or, more broadly, of the human university. It is, in fact, in rude good health, not so much in the Crystal Palace of the Business School, the “excellent” (transparent/transcendentally capitalised) university, with its reduction of governance to calculability, but in the face-to-face encounter in the place of learning, wherever it should be.

Said “excellent” university wants to count its students and research outputs, but it does not account for itself (it is non-reflexive); teachers in the university ought to account for themselves—as should students (they should be reflexive). This teachers can do, not by grading students and counting research outputs, but by taking account of the “distribution of the sensible” (a description of what counts) that prevails in the place of learning: affect from below (democratic affect); deformance, intentional and otherwise; decryption; etc. . . . (of which more later).

And because the “excellent” university is also an “exploded” university, it is distributed well beyond the walls of the Crystal Palace through the relatively autonomous—and thus relatively incalculable—nodes of remote learning and other @-universities; and encloses within its walls other similar nodes, such as centres, writing-studies classrooms (!), and (post-)seminars.

“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.