The Rhythm of Writing

His [Flusser’s] writing method evolved in the era of the portable manual typewriter, and he never changed it thereafter, despite the explosion of information technology through which he was to live and about which he was to philosophize…He rejected electric and electronic-typewriters because he objected to the noises they made…Flusser defended his preference for manual over automatic machines by claiming that the silence between keystrokes coupled with the physical act of returning the carriage left to right, left to right, punctuated his thoughts at the correct intervals for composition.  

Pawley, Martin (1999) “Introduction,” 7-16 in Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things, London: Reaktion 1999, 13-14. 

It seems he “played” on the typewriter as, say, a jazz musician might, someone for whom the technology makes such a slight demand on consciousness that the player’s own changing awareness can actually register in the medium (Such things are said of, for example, Louis Armstrong — that you could hear him thinking). Quite possibly he understood the gesture as a move in a game, the game of a particular language in which he could act himself out (?), knowing he could, and probably would, abandon that particular game [read: language] at some point and move [translate] to another. The spaces in between, he often said, were spaces of freedom. 

The Gesture of Listening to Music

Donenico Ghirlandaio, The Annunciation

A gesture, as Flusser defines it, is “a movement of the body or of a tool attached with the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation.”  It seems a quiet, unassuming definition.  But it becomes the foundation of a comprehensive theory of human communication, with specific gestures for speaking, writing, photographing, and many more.  Listening to music differs from the others in not being active, but rather passive.  He argues that this is exactly what distinguishes it from other – expressive – gestures.

In Renaissance painting, Mary holds herself, leaning toward the sound of the Word, suggests what he wants to say about music. Music, he says – and he speculates that the Word in this case may have been a song — doesn’t demand a specific, identifiable gesture, but rather asks any listener to adapt his body to take in the sound.  The gesture will look different, that is, depending on who is listening and what kind of music is being heard.  The absence of any other expressive movement is what singles this specific gesture out, in other words.  It implies that people who “use” music as the background to other things they are doing, e.g. driving or cleaning or – impossible for me, but many do – writing and record-keeping —  are not actually listening at all.   

It implies that real listening quite a difficult thing to do. I feel fairly sure it’s quite a rarity, for that reason. Flusser’s description underscores the intentional dimension of the gesture, as well as its submissive posture. Listening becomes a kind of intentional submission — not a bad definition of prayer.

Krapp’s Last Tape

Philip Robinson played Krapp in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape, last night in Ashburton, Devon, in a friend’s living room.  It was”right”.  Everyone — 20 of us — could really see and hear, notice the ticking clock at otherwise silent moments, empathise with the technological frustrations, and the technological authority.   As Philip later put it, we were “complicit”.  

The tape recorder pins the script to a particular moment in the 1950s — 1958 was the date of the first performance.  But it’s set in the future, probably the 1970s. The record a person may keep of her past is, by tradition, written; to hear one’s own voice is something completely different.  Does the voice have stronger presence, more authority, more presence?  It lets us, the audience in…

The Piano Lesson

Matisse’s Piano Lesson, 1916 (Museum of Modern Art, New York).  It depicts the painting Woman on a High Stool (Germaine Raynal), 1914, also at MoMA, and a number of other works.  Matisse’s son Pierre, the student , was actually sixteen at the time of the painting, but this, like much of Matisse’s work, looks back, not to a “slice of time”, a single moment, but to something about a space and an instrument and at least two people and possibly quite a lot of time, to relationships that are personal, but not just personal. It is silent. And perhaps the silence of what Flusser calls a traditional image, imposed by the painter on the materials, is heightened if the cause of the painting — a cause in the painter’s mind — does involve sound.

A Plague of Piano Lessons

Friedrich Kittler’s books construct a firmly material foundation below the idea of discourse as Michel Foucault framed it: the conventions and boundaries of what can be said at any given time. These are the shifts, he says, that constitute historical change.  Taking over Foucault’s broad timeframe (one such shift about 1800, another about 1900), Kittler examines the impact of Grammophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press) on 19th-century European discourse. In his account the typewriter’s impact on social relationships, Kittler quotes from a book by two economists writing in 1895:  

…it may come as a surprise to find a practical use for what has become a veritable plague across the country, namely, piano lessons for young girls: the resultant dexterity is very useful for the operation of  the typewriter.  Rapid typing on it can be achieved only through the dexterous use of all fingers. If this profession is not yet as lucrative in Germany as it is in America, it is due to the infiltration of elements who perform the job of typist mechanically, without any additional skills.

Julius Mayer and Josef Silbermann, Die Frau im Handel und Gewerbe, Der Existenzkampf der Frau im modernen Leben.  Seine Ziele und Aussichten [Women in Business and Industry. Women’s Struggle for Existence in Modern Life. Her Goals and Prospects] 7, Berlin, 1895, 264.

Keyboard as a Graphic User Interface

Usually abbreviated as GUI, it’s the term for physical shape, size, color and arrangement of the physical controls that put a human being in control of an industrial product. Designers of “personal technology” devices, perhaps game designers in particular, think about it a lot because it can spell the difference between a device that becomes easy and familiar — in short, a device one can play with — and one that’s a constant frustration.

The piano keyboard is an early and astonishingly successful example of an interface that expresses, or better, materialises an idea about sound. It also incorporates a sensitive and intelligent definition of “average” adult human hands — and ears and brains.

Listening and Hearing

Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) wrote about music as part of an long-term effort to develop a theory of communication. In the book Gestures (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), I translated “Die Geste des Musikhörens” as “The Gesture of Listening to Music.” The decision seemed very straightforward at the time, even though the German title quite clearly refers literally to hearing music (“listen” would be “zuhören”). Flusser defines “gesture” at all points as a movement: other essays in the series focus on, for example, writing, painting, photographing, filming, shaving, smoking. They’re active verbs. I’m still wondering in what sense listening is a movement. It definitely is active, though. You can hear something by accident — it can just happen to you. But if you’re listening, it’s intentional.