Vilem Flusser – Objects, Bottles and painting – ‘Aufgehoben’

After assignment submission, I do feel reliefed with new energy to discover new things and reading some of my short listed items. In this case Flusser’s exploration, at times spiced up with humor, and description of mundane objects in our life (Flusser, 1993:7-32). It resonates strongly with my ongoing interest in objects as fetishes (Schaffeld, 2018), the object-subject relationship, and how we make sense out of and relate to objects or things around us.

First, he puts objects into three categories (‘apparate‘ / machines, ‘dummes zeug‘ / nonsense, and ‘werte‘ / values). Only to acknowledge a bit later that a taxonomy of things is not going to work, either some objects do not fit or fit into multiple categories.

He also distinguishes between nature and culture, with humankind as culture in itself. One might argue with that distinction, as all humans are part of nature and born through nature (even if supported by fertilisation techniques). For me, not to dig so much into that dichotomy but more to look what Flusser says about the human conditions of life.

With the example of bottles, specifically sparkling wine bottles, Flusser develops a philosophical enquiry that makes one wonder whether the wine or the bottle is more important. He discusses the difference between form and content, and develops an evolutionary or perhaps more an anthropological line of thought that the bottle as cultural object can be either kept in culture or put back to nature, both ways a failure. He compares it with metabolic processes and the entropic structure of nature:

‘ Culture is a process that cumulatively transforms nature into waste, basically a negative entropic epicycle on a process of entropy.’ (P. 22)

As mentioned above, I do feel Flusser is thinking too much in binary opposites, as also nature, e.g. cells, are negative entropic structures re-building themselves as organised systems. Nevertheless, he argues that there would be just three positions to the question of the bottle as form (empty bottle):

  • a ‘platonic’ one: ‘aufgehoben‘ in a sense of ‘to elevate’ , the form (empty bottle) as transcendent, non-human object to collect, to display (what resembles very much a fetish, and artworks in a gallery as well; Flusser also refers to smaller maquette bottles as collectibles), a future orientation
  • a ‘modern’ one: ‘aufgehoben‘ in a sense of ‘to suspend’, and being transformed into something else, e.g modified, metabolised as an ‘ashtray’
  • a ‘critical’ one: ‘aufgehoben‘, in a sense of ‘to abolish’, discarded as waste, as broken glass, unused, with no value, piled up as memory of the human past

Interestingly, under consideration and knowledge of the last position, often the predominant destiny of bottles, Flusser concludes that the first contemplative position would be hard to maintain, a moral case of conscience? Flusser finishes his bottle-talk with a sense that the content (sparkling wine) might end up to be the important thing overall, to drink it. What reminds me of the topic that overthinking is not helping at all. Where to draw the line?

Fig. 1: Sketchbook – Bottles ‘aufgehoben’: to transcend, to suspend/transform, to abolish/discard – nature and culture

Walls (pp. 27-32) are another condition, a metaphor, for a double dilemma: to protect and to encapsulate, to look out and to look inside of oneself. The wall as surface for projections and illusions.

From my visit to Sean Cully’s current exhibition at the National Gallery I found the following quote by Cully (talking about his four piece work Human 3, 2018) very appropriate in this context, though with a different viewpoint than Flusser:

A window is a promise, like a doorway. A facade is not totally relentless because of the window and the door. That’s what humanises the wall’ – Sean Scully

I noticed how Flusser looks and uses language, the German language, similar to how French post-structuralists as Derrida or Lyotard deconstructed the French language. Example: ‘ding‘ / thing and ‘bedingen‘ / be condition for. Semantics hard to translate, as above ‘aufgehoben’,

What has this to do with my work and my past and future explorations?

To recognise that simple things and mundane objects can be much more than value or trash. It reflects the human conditions of existence and behaviour. I could take one object, like the screen or the human brain, both material objects with a loaded meaning often far beyond the material nature itself. And considering paintings, there I can see clearly the three positions describe by Flusser. But besides the material nature it also has a transcendent aspect, a deferred meaning with it. It seems that applying paint is more than paint, color or illusion. And what, if the material nature of paint is gone? Is it nature or culture? And what if the painting is released from its material constraints, i.e. the stretchers, the frame? Like the wall that might feel constrained but also acts as a surface for vision.

This is a good start into part 4 of this course, addressing and dissolving, ‘aufheben‘ of conventional constraints (considering the German multiplicity of meaning of this word, it might even end up with keeping constraints in order to subvert). And my open question form part 3: can a painting be a painting without paint? Or, what material conditions are minimum required ? And what need to be there in order to consider a painting still as such?


Reference:

  • Flusser, V. (1993) Dinge und Undinge – Phänomenologische Skizzen, Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag
  • Schaffeld, S.J. (2018) ‘Objects and Fetishism – The Handle and the Box’ [blog post] at: http://ocasp.stefanvisualart.com/?p=3006
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2 Comments
  • Janet Davies
    Apr 30,2019 at 9:41 AM

    Thanks Stefan this is interesting. I wonder if Flusser’s book is available in English (I don’t have your marvellous language skills). I will do some internet searching. Janet.

    • Stefan
      Apr 30,2019 at 9:52 AM

      Thanks, Janet – now that you said it. It is available in English , title ‘The Shape of Things: a philosophy of design’ . Found that there even is an online pdf version (german) at: https://monoskop.org/images/5/52/Flusser_Vilem_Dinge_und_Undinge_Phaenomenologische_Skizzen_German.pdf
      I heard about Flusser first through photography students and their reading group , a popular book is ‘towards a philosophy of photography’ . But I am more interested in how we relate to things . A small book in chapters, good to reading on the go

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