Line vs. Surface (vs. Volume) Thought

Wii Tennis

Vilém Flusser, "Line and Surface" (1973):

Let us, then, recapitulate our argument, in order to try to suggest what form the new civilization might take. We have two alternatives before us. First, there is the possibility that imaginal thinking [eg. surface, image, screen] will not succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking [eg. line, text]. This could lead to a general depoliticization, deactivation, and alienation of humankind, to the victory of the consumer society, and to the totalitarianism of the mass media. Such a development would look very much like the present mass culture, but in more exaggerated or gross form. The culture of the elite would disappear for good, thus bringing history to an end in any meaningful sense of that term. The second possibility is that imaginal thinking will succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking. This would lead to new types of communication in which man consciously assumes the structural position. Science would then be no longer merely discursive and conceptual, but would have recourse to imaginal models. Art would no longer work at things ("oeuvres"), but would propose models. Politics would no longer fight for the realization of values, but would elaborate manipulable hierarchies of models of behavior. All this would mean, in short, that a new sense of reality would articulate itself, within the existential climate of a new religiosity.

All this is utopian. But it is not fantastic. Whoever looks at the scene can find everything already there, in the form of lines and surfaces already working. It depends on each one of us which sort of posthistorical future there will be.

On the surface there are two primary and interconnected problems with Flusser's line of thought. The first concerns the materiality of the communications medium. While line and surface, or imaginal and conceptual thought are certainly distinct ways of knowing, the fact remains that they are both still represented in the two-dimensional planar form: text on a page and image on celluloid or screen. In other words, we must distinguish between dimensions of perception and inscription. Text is perceived as a line inscribed on the plane of the book, for example, while image is perceived as a surface inscribed on the plane of the screen.

This distinction becomes even more pronounced and relevant as regards the second problem. Flusser wrote his essay in 1973, just as Atari's Pong was being launched to popular audiences in the United States. Even had he been aware of the game at the time of his writing, it is unlikely that it would have significantly altered his theoretical framework, for Pong was in retrospect a rather humble attempt to bring electronic games to life in video form that faithfully represented in gamespace the ludic enclosure of the tennis court. In most respects, it seemed to be yet another example of proliferating surface thought.

Pong

We must recall, however, that the word atari derives from the game Go, and means to advance in attack and capture territory. Soon the simple enclosure on Pong was ruptured as the new videogame medium began to shed its technical constraints and realize its always-latent potential. Static gameplay yielded to scrolling gameplay, most famously in Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. In this quest to save the Princess, Mario captured territory seemingly beyond the boundaries of the television screen to which the console had inscribed its data.

In other words, though partly obscured by its inscription on the two-dimensional plane (as with line and surface) we were witnessing the emergence of a mode of perception in our media quite different from text and image, though it combined elements of both. Its proper name, gesture, is only now becoming apparent as the volume it represents attempts to pull free from the planar screen.

Flusser's lines and surfaces do not refer to a material substrate so much as they consider a mode or technique of viewing what are in both cases two-dimensional substrates, text on the flat page or image on a screen. Given this at the outset, then it seems we ought to consider volumes and volumetric thinking as well, even if they have been flattened to two dimensions with regard to the material substrate of the television screen or arcade console.

The question then becomes: how will somatic or proprioceptive thinking (gesture) fold together with imaginal thinking and conceptual thinking in our understanding of the world? At a surface level, then, what we are actually questioning here is the difference between invention and confinement.

Michel Serres: "What can our bodies do? Almost anything."

Comments

Comments are closed.