Fingers

Vilém Flusser, ‘Fingers’, pp.57-63, in:
Flusser, V., Zielinski, S., Baitello, N., Novaes, R.M., 2013 [1979]. Natural:mind. Univocal, Minneapolis, MN.

p.57

I am sitting on a chair. The chair is a product of Western civilization and if it were to be analysed it would reveal the history of the West.

The juxtaposition “chair – desk” is a characteristic structure of particular situations of my culture.

p.58

This is a slight paleo-technological writing instrument (a product of the beginning of the 20th century). The machine has keys inscribed with letters of the Latin alphabet.

My fingers hit the keys in a particular order. This order is therefore determined by the specific order of such a language.

The Portuguese sentences sought by my fingers are articulations of my thoughts. These thoughts are programmed by the economic, social and cultural (in sum, historical) conditions that determine who I am.

I seek to detach the paper from the machine once it is ready, so that it may be read by an-other. This other will be able to decipher the message on the paper as he or she participates in the same culture as I do. The whole situation, then, is characteristic of a particular culture. My fingers are inserted into it.

[Yet] The analysis of my fingers will not reveal the history of the West, as the analysis of the chair, the machine, the alphabet and the Portuguese language will. To be sure: the gestures of my fingers on the machine may, if analysed, be revealed as a historically determined gesture. But not the fingers: they are not the products of the history of culture.

I am strongly tempted to say that they are the products of the history of nature.

pp.58-59

I have very strong models (the Darwinian for example) that allow me to say this.

p.59

And to say, therefore, that my fingers are natural phenomena that were introduced into a cultural situation, which thus transforms, informs, or in sum – that conditions their gestures. Culture as the violation of nature.

Such a description of the situation would be, however, entirely inappropriate. It would not grasp its climate.

Such a climate is not that of the violation of my fingers by a cultural establishment, made up of synchronised apparatus (even though several current trends, including the New Left, believe that it is so).

Within this situation, it is not a case of “denaturalisation” or “acculturation” of my fingers. An observation of the fingers’ gestures proves that this is not so. They do not move mechanically, although they move within and upon several “machines” (the one for writing, the alphabet, the Portuguese language).

Their movement is deliberate, that is, they articulate my freedom. The fingers choose particular keys and ignore others, and they choose each key according to criteria.

It is true that the criteria make possible and give meaning to, the finger’s movements; that is, they open a field of choices.

My fingers are free within the situation described., with all of the dialectic of freedom that the analysis of the situation reveals.

In other terms, the situation is cultural, and thus a field of freedom for my fingers. To formulate it paradoxically: culture is natural for fingers, and outside it, they are not as they “ought to be”: free.

p.60

What are fingers like outside of culture, and therefore not violated, not appropriated by established apparatus? What is the natural movement of fingers? Their repertoire is reduced. They rub, scratch, maybe point and stab; they hold on to furry objects.

These are, in thesis, perfectly explainable by the natural sciences. They reflect internal body conditions (thermodynamic and chemical tensions, genetic information, etc) and environmental conditions. Fingers are entirely determined within natural situations.

This late Romantic “revolution,” which seeks to free fingers from being violated by the apparatus (for example, through the “pleasure principle”), seeks, in reality, to reduce them to scratching movements. The real revolution would not be to take fingers away from the apparatus, but the appropriation of apparatus by fingers.

The typewriter was made in order to serve as a tool for my fingers. It is an extension of my fingers.

But it is clear that the relation “machine – fingers” is not simple but dialectic, and that is why it is easily reversible. In order for the fingers to make use of the machine, I must get to know it.

Monkeys can type on a typewriter without knowing it, and if one million monkeys typed on one million typewriters for one million years they would necessarily produce the present text. Necessarily, but not deliberately.

pp.60-61

Knowledge of the machine is a presupposition for freedom.

p.61

Freedom is not an intermediary field between statistical chance and necessity. Such a field does not exist […]

Without knowledge, the typewriter is not a thing of culture, but a natural condition, as it is for monkeys. because we are either partially, or entirely ignorant of them. Apparatus and our fingers function within these situations. And it is against these functional situations that revolutions arise: in order to free fingers.

In order to know the typewriter, our fingers must learn to handle it, either empirically or by “ad hoc” techniques. That is, they must learn to make movements that are appropriate to the machine, and in this sense, be appropriated by the machine.

But this is not an alienating appropriation. It is a dialectical process in which the fingers appropriate the machine as the machine appropriates the fingers. During this process, several virtualise of both machines and fingers are revealed. To learn this is to verify what can be done with machines and fingers. Or better: what fingers can do with the machine and what the machine can provoke the fingers into doing.

The machine and fingers then become the two horizons of a dialectical relation (that of writing) in which one horizon exists for the other.

pp.61-62

The machine exists for fingers (it is made for them), and fingers exist for the machine (they move appropriately for it).

p.62

But the relation between machine and fingers is not symmetrical (in the sense of when the situation of writing becomes alienating, as in the case of typists in offices and banks). The relation is not symmetrical because the finger’s movements – which articulate freedom – determine the machine’s movements.

This lack of symmetry cannot be objectively observed.

Only I can observe this situation, in which I write and simultaneously transcend it. I do not transcend it as the Martian does, from a distance. I transcend it as a participant: not ‘metaphysically” but by being engaged. I engage in the situation through my fingers, and transcend it by observing the fingers that are mine.

The knowledge of my free will is invulnerable to sophistic argument, even though I also have knowledge of the total determination of my writing act, and of my decision to do it.

This is why freedom cannot be explained, and when it is explained, it ceases to be freedom. However, I can concretely observe the fact that I am writing freely. This is the fact of every true revolution.

My fingers are unquestionably free within a described situation, but this fact cannot be described.

p.63

On the contrary, in pointing to the forces that determine the movement of my fingers, any explanation of the situation will conceal the notion of freedom. Every explanation will reveal that the cultural and natural situation in which I find myself, through my fingers’ mediation, defines me completely by determining my fingers’ movements.

Any explanation is, therefore, an excuse for those who defend situations that are alienating. However, curiously, it is the same for their contestors.

The defenders will say that freedom does not exist, that it is a prejudice, and thus they justify the alienating and determining power of the apparatus (be it technocratically, politically, or traditionally consecrated).

Even though there is, thus, an apparent contradiction between defenders and contesters, there is, effectively, collaboration between them.

[…] the defenders of alienating situations opt for the conditioning of culture, and the contesters for the conditioning of nature. But this contradiction between culture and nature does not necessarily exist. Culture may come to be man’s nature.

In effect, it already is, within particular situations, such as the one just described. And culture, as man’s nature, is the field of freedom. In it, fingers may realise their virtualise. This is what the observation of my fingers reveal as they type the present text.

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