Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come / A Habitable Zone for Criticism / Aaron Jaffe

Screen caption from “Extreme Deixis – a roundtable talk on Vilem Flusser and Richard McGuire“.

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken…
—Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”

What’s at issue in finding Vilém Flusser’s Planet is searching for a habitable zone for criticism. TL, DR: where criticism becomes inevitable is not failed messages and their hidden dimensions.

FIGURE 1: Extreme Deixis: On Vilem Flusser and Richard McGuire

Perhaps, I should say more about Flusser (but, maybe, considering the brevity necessitated by this forum, not say too much). The Czech-Brazilian media philosopher was not a systematic thinker. Whether systematic thinking in the sense of explanatory models that predict future data is a good thing for interpretive disciplines is a question Flusser engages purposefully. He, is, instead, another late modernist theory-auteur, one steeped in a weirdly ironic and playful amalgam of Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and McLuhan, rushing to the end, skipping any serious engagement with Saussure or structuralism. “Reinvented the wheel, although in an ironical way,” as he puts it in a letter, Flusser’s concepts were worked out—or, perhaps, I should say worked through or worked over—between the 1960 and 1990, translated and retranslated in a succession of aphoristic and occasional writings in four languages. Only now are these materials being collated and compiled.1 Translation is perhaps the formative literary gesture according to Flusser because it accurately expresses the reality of a communicological pluriverse, the inexorable comings and goings of language.2

The book called Here by Richard McGuire illustrates a post-literary format for grasping a Flusserian literary problem.3 What Here portrays is, in effect, the extreme deixis of the inhuman communicology needed for finding a habitable planet for criticism in the universe of technical images, finding what-here-is means in terms of display, demonstration, reference, and reflexivity. McGuire’s book visualizes a house, images spanning 200 or so years, as it is built, remodeled, and destroyed, lived and died in, hosts various happenings. A location given to human inhabitation and then dislocated into the dimensions of the deep past—prehistory, among dinosaurs, continental drift, framed by the earliest moments of cosmic materialization, shown underwater, polluted, radioactive, taken proleptically to the very imaginative future limit of the information death of the universe itself. What are we looking at when we look so far back? What frame comes before the window, the mirror, the screen, the fireplace? In other words—what is this frame composed of—metaphorically or otherwise? What is the future of the way-back-when right now? The deep time of a corner of a room, its transient inhabitants, scenes, objects, events, referents, accidents, furniture, books, pictures, animals, jokes, sounds, utterances, noises. Does here organize a fusion of horizons or their undoing? Is a given space itself an observational container for anachronism, forever un-located by global positioning—locating, locating, locating?4 Is herein other words a question of being or a direction for becoming dislocated—for dislocated observation, in other words?

Here is, the book jacket notes, “the story of the corner of a room and of the events that have occurred in that space over the course of hundreds of thousands of years.” What kind story is this, then, that exits storia? Isn’t it necessarily about not being or beings but about becoming and becoming lost in chronic anachronism and negligibility at that? Put a marker under this, and let’s turn to the problem of the ancestral as posed by Quentin Meillassoux. Meillassoux defines “ancestral” as “any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species – or even anterior to every recognized form of life on earth.”5 Ancestral is another way of saying paleo—the way-back-when. The speculative turn has made a noise about the insignificance of symbolization, language, and epistemology in the face of ancestral objects—the decay of radioactive isotopes, “the accretion of the earth” “4.56 billion years ago,” or, consider the inevitable heat-death of the universe, for that matter, but less about the indexicality of gestures made thinkable by seeing and hearing certain inhuman signals by technical means. The speculative turn in its preoccupation with the status of arche-fossils may underrate the techno-genetic side-effects of arche-deixis and instrumentation. After touring the state of the art Einsteinturm in the 1920s, a state-of-the-art observatory tricked out with astrophysical instruments with its architect Erich Mendelsohn, Einstein mutters one cryptic word: Organisch! Without going too deeply into the fevered pitch of the so-called correlationist controversy between being and knowing and its supposed implications for undoing the linguistic turn and so on, I want to re-describe the problem as a legitimacy crisis concerning the one of originary technicity of the relations between here and there, between now and then and their scalar implications.

Does deixis as such—given symbolic form, as a kind of communicological limit finding—have any ancestral import?6 Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must build SETI antennae for readouts from ancient aliens.7 Is there any sense in thinking here-there, in short, by scanning the event horizon as a limit of possible information? Consider this cosmic banality: “what entitles us to make claims about the nature of the universe billions of years prior to the emergence of life or mind?”8 I take this as one of the main implications of McGuire’s fascinating book. The vanishing point, the bent twig, the corner with the dog, the manifold dressing-up, and the dances, are not merely “a retrojection of the past on the basis of the present.” “To understand the fossil,” Meillassoux writes, “it is necessary to proceed from the present to the past, following a logical order, rather than from the past to the present, following a chronological order.” Instead of retrojection and arche-fossils—fossil from to dig and arche, crypt—we might think rather that Here demonstrates a logic of an-archeology and projection, to take a page from Vilém Flusser and Siegfried Zielinski. Rather than substances and essences—seeing objects as either perishing or subsisting—Flusser’s paleofuturist communicology shifts attention to functions, relations of accidents and their inescapability. Paleo, which means something like Way Back, shares its etymological dynamism with another Greek root, Tele, more commonly associated with his telematic media theory, which means, as Flusser often reminds us, Far Away. Tele and Paleo convey deep orientations, making ways to far away space and time respectively. They count among the few concept words transferred from the East—other than those associated with transfers of artefactual objects or sounds that babies make. Far away and way back. Here I want to highlight a continuity with the Benjaminian sense of rescuing the past: don’t give up on your desire for a better past is itself a constellation of experiment as aesthetic-intellectual opportunity.9 “Don’t seek the old in new” is Zielinski’s way of putting this relation—seek something new in the old, seek the no in the yes or the reverse.10 Ground control to Vilém F., I’m hoping to kick humanism, but the planet, it’s glowing.

FIGURE 2: From Richard McGuire’s Here (107)

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This is part of the cluster Posthuman Scale and the Care to Come. Read the other posts here.

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  1. See Dominic Pettman, “The Species Without Qualities: Critical Media Theory and the Posthumanities,” boundary2 (April 23, 2019), for an excellent overview of Flusser’s relevance to the media-theoretical conditions of the posthumanitites: See also Aaron Jaffe, Michael Miller, and Rodrigo Paula, eds., Understanding Flusser,Understanding Modernism (New York: Bloomsbury, 2021).
  2. Flusser, “Change of Paradigms,” Writings (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2002), 85-90.
  3. Richard McGuire, Here (New York: Pantheon, 2014). See especially Lee Konstantinou, “A Theory of ‘Here,” The Account,, with whom I agree that it’s a category mistake to think of this work as a graphic novel. Also valuable on McGuire’s vexed generic condition is Stephanie Burt’s commentary in Art Forum:
  4. See especially the geo-positioning story by Richard Powers, “Lodestar,” Monkey Business, Vol. 3 (2013).
  5. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (New York: Continuum, 2010), 10.
  6. I.e., the grammatical operation of indicating or pointing out.
  7. I thank Charles Tung for this formulation.
  8. From Levi Bryant’s contribution to the Meillassoux Dictionary, ed. Peter Gratton (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2014), 48.
  9. This preoccupation with rescue care stretches across Benjamin’s work. See Gerhard Richter, “Can Anything Be Rescued by Defending It? Benjamin with Adorno,” differences (2010) 21 (3): 34–52.
  10. See Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media (MIT Press, 2006).