Vilém Flusser On the end of history

Whoever speaks of the end of history should be able to explain what he means when he is speaking about history. But, this is fundamentally impossible. It is unfair to expect a clear definition of the concept of history from historians and posthistorians. The explanation for this is the double meaning of the concept and the difficulty involved in disentangling these two meanings. In the first sense, the word means a process, a course of events. In the second sense, it means a narrative. On the surface, these appear to be completely different meanings; yet, has there ever been a process about which no one told a story? This is a metaphysical question. On the other hand, are there any stories that are not based on processes? This is a rhetorical question. To express this in a more radical manner: For a process to be recognized, it must be narrated. And, for a narrative to be a narrative, something must happen. Every attempt to separate history in the first sense definitively from history in the second sense, which is to say, history from historiography, history from story, necessarily creates more confusion instead of eliminating confusion altogether. Added to this is the fact that storytelling itself is a part of the history being narrated; in other words, narratives make history. The Trojan War is a part of history, and it has The lliad to thank for this. Moreover, The Iliad is part of history, and it has the Trojan War to thank for this. Neither Schliemann’s archaeological research nor the philological research of Homer interpreters can alter this fact. Still, both camps are able to place the double meaning of the concept of “history” before our eyes.

Posthistorians, people who tell a story about the end of history, are necessarily storytellers. When they tell a story about the end of history, they make history. It seems as if they are caught up in a sophistic paradox, like someone who speaks about the end of philosophy and then, with this philosophical pronouncement, drives philosophy forward. Nevertheless, to speak about the end of history is not contradictory. For stories are not endless; they have an ending. One can divide stories into short and long stories. Consequently, posthistorians believe that all narratives approach their endings, that no one tells a story any longer. From now on, one either counts up or portrays in pictures: from now on, either statistics or electromagnetic image recordings. Moreover, when nothing more is narrated, then nothing more will happen. The posthistorians believe that the question “What comes after the end of history?” is absurd. Similarly, it would be absurd to ask Scheherazade the question “What comes after the thousand-and-first night?”

Let us be naive for a moment and pretend that we know what we mean when we speak about “history”: namely, a process. Then there is only one history. For every process is the continuation of something preceding it and something leading to a continuation. Every process is embedded in one large process. Let us call this one, singular history “natural history,” and let us pretend not to know that there is an academic discipline that tells the story of natural history, namely, natural sciences. Let us pretend not to know that there is no natural history without natural sciences, and vice versa. This pretense, this doing-as-if, is not difficult for us, because we do not actually know if we know it.

There is a relatively simple equation, namely, the second law of thermodynamics. It tells the complete, huge story of natural history. This law encompasses all past, present, and future processes. It is a marvelous narrative. Short and compact, it narrates all the short and long stories. It is possible to formulate this short algorithm in different ways. For example, one method is to use the German language. Of course, this makes the story a little longer, but it continues to give us an overall picture. It goes like this:

Roughly sixteen billion years ago, there was a big bang whose echo we still hear today if we listen the right way. Since that time, particles have been tearing through the universe almost at the speed of light. During this process, they bump into each other by accident and form clusters. Despite these accidents, the entire process moves in the direction of a uniform distribution of particles. When this goal is reached, history comes to an end—because then there will be no more time, for time signifies the distribution of particles. This “short story,” which narrates the long, wide-ranging story of natural history, will also come to an end. Then, all past, present, and future processes will have run their course. In the meantime, however—that is, during the narrative process—they continue to run their course. And the temporary process sounds something like this:

The diameter of the natural universe is presently sixteen billion years wide, because it is sixteen billion years old. One is roughly aware of its size. It is fundamentally empty space through which the particles travel as they approach their uniform distribution, entropy. However, in this empty space there are clusters formed by chance, and between these are powerful forces. Some of these clusters do not look as if they were formed by chance—our nervous systems, for example. Their complexity is so great that the thought of chance creating something so complex is completely beyond our imagination. In a similar manner, the number of particles that have been spinning around and crashing into each other for sixteen billion years is beyond our imagination. These unimaginable numbers persisting for unimaginable lengths of time make the origin of unimaginable complexities like our nervous systems a necessary coincidence. From among these absurd, improbable clusters, the simple, short algorithm of the second law of thermodynamics was pieced together (and the one gigantic natural history), so that they can tell their stories.

The posthistorians believe that these sorts of narratives can no longer be spread. People no longer allow themselves to be convinced by this sort of explanation. Stories as short as this, telling of the one and only long history, can no longer be told. Moreover, if they have lost their narratabiliIy, then absolutely nothing can be narrated anymore. For the one singular, large, narrated history, which is the subject matter of the short story, already contains all the stories that have been narrated, those currently being narrated, and those still to be narrated. But, if this one short story of the one large story can no longer be told, then one can no longer tell stories in general. This is the meaning of posthistory.

Why is it that one can no longer tell such stories? Because they turn in circles, like a dog chasing its own tail. This can be explained in the following manner: the algorithm that formulates the second law of thermodynamics is an idea for a film. The German translation for this algorithm is the screenplay. The story of natural history is the film itself. The natural sciences are the film criticism. What do they critique? The film? The screenplay? The film idea? The idea (the algorithm) comes from the film criticism itself, from the natural sciences, which is to say, from thermodynamics. However, thermodynamics believes that the algorithm has been taken from the film. Someone has an idea. The idea is derived from a film that he will shoot. People can no longer be persuaded of this. Posthistory.

This vertigo, this whirlwind in which our thought must move when it tries to think about the relationship between natural sciences and natural history, is a symptom of the end of history. The dizziness that has seized us is the screw by means of which we unscrew ourselves from historical consciousness, to drill ourselves into another hole. The turns of the screw are processes, and our thought must move along these turns. Yet, the screw itself is not a process, but rather a form. Thus, we proceed from the process to the form, from the historical into the formal. This is not only vertiginous, but also comprehensible.

The central nervous system is a cluster created by chance. At least this is how it tells its own story, thus developing all other history from this self-narration. But the reverse is also true: history in its entirety is told by the central nervous system, and, in the course of this, the system discovers that it has narrated itself. In this manner, we arrive at what seems to be another sophistic paradox: How can the world be part of the brain when the brain is part of the world? It turns out that this paradox is resolved once the dog stops chasing his own tail. Then, one needs no longer speak of brain-ness in the world and the brain’s being-in-the-world, because the brain narrates the world, and the world is narrated by the brain. Then the brain is to the world what Homer is to Achilles or K. is to Kafka. Because it makes little sense to ask if Achilles is in Homer or Homer in Achilles, it also makes little sense to ask if the world is to be sought in the brain or the brain in the world. The world and the brain are related to each other like process and narrative: the process creates the narrative and the narrative creates the process (the brain makes the world and the world makes the brain). It makes one dizzy when one thinks about this historically, but not when one thinks about it formally. The apparent paradox is one of the turns of the screw, out of the historical into the formal.

But now, another turn of the screw: Like the history of every species, the history of the human species is part of natural history. Like the origin of trilobites, great dinosaurs, or the woolly mammoth, the origin of the human species can be explained by what preceded it. Because the extinction of these three species was predictable, the same can be said about the extinction of our own species. Like all other biological species, our species is a transitional excrescence in the accidental, ever-changing, and mutating stream of genetic information. Still, the history of humankind is different in kind than other species. Indeed, it is different in kind than all other natural history. This difference in kind can be formulated in the following manner: All of history—except for human history—concerns processes that have become necessary by chance. The shell of a trilobite, a dinosaur bone, and a mammoth tusk are the products of chance. It is impertinent to ask why they are so and not so. On the other hand, the history of the human species is full of things that demand a different set of questions. Whoever does not ask for what purpose a hand ax, a pitcher, an automobile, or even a word, a song, or a philosophical thought, has been created has not yet begun to tell the srory of human history. The difference between natural history and human history is that natural processes can be explained by the question “why?” and cultural processes by an additional question, “for what purpose?” But wait, now we have to start over from the beginning. Our ancestors—as well as the myths through which they still speak to us—approached all processes with the question “for what purpose?” “For what purpose does the sun shine? So that we can see our way.” “For what purpose is the Christmas tree always green? A symbol for the faithful.” “What purpose does the cow fulfill? To give us blue cheese.” If natural processes do not allow questions of purpose, then our ancestors (and their myths) did not have nature. Everything was human history, and man was on a first-name basis with the animals, plants, stones, and stars.

Then, much later—but certainly not before the pre-Socratics—certain processes were no longer questioned about their purpose. Nature came into being in this manner. First, stars and stones; second, plants and animals; and, finally, people themselves were approached from the perspective of the natural sciences, which is to say, as accidental phenomena devoid of intention. And, now we have to follow another thought process:

On the one hand, it is correct to say—as we have done—that the human species is a biological species, that is, a natural-historical process. On the other hand, it is equally correct to say that natural-historical processes are the processes that were narrated for the first time around 2,500 years ago. On the one hand, the history of the human species is one of the final chapters in natural history. On the other hand, natural history is a late chapter of human history. On the one hand, man is a recent accidental result of nature. On the other hand, nature is a late product of man. He created it with the intention of explaining the world and himself without reference to intention. On the other hand, nature is a consequence of value judgments, like every other product of the history of the human species. Whoever thinks historically is hopelessly confused by this method of argumentation. For how can culture originate from nature and nature from culture? But this confusion is nothing more than a turning of the screw out of history and into posthistory. In posthistorical thinking, the dog no longer chases its own tail. Natural history is one of the narratives of cultural history. Thus, cultural history is one part of the natural history it narrates to itself.

The one large natural history is measured with scales whose unit of measure is billions of years. One can divide this unit of measure further, but this division is still not precise enough to make centuries visible—not to say, minutes. In fact, it would probably make for a completely uninteresting story, because our life-world is touched by natural history only in seconds flat. Surprisingly, however, it is an extremely fascinating story. It is much more interesting to tell a story about the origin of life on earth two billion years ago than to talk about last year’s weather. It is much more interesting to tell a story about the first lemurs—our ancestral primates who roamed the earth two hundred to four hundred million years ago, similar to modern-day squirrels—than to talk, with permission, about our grandmothers. The modified, logarithmic eyeglasses that we put on during storytelling provide an explanation for this. The first billion years may then appear shorter than the last half hour. Like binoculars or reading glasses, we can turn these modified eyeglasses around. If we make this adjustment, history becomes much more interesting. The playful lemurs that roam a forest incomprehensible to us in its details are much closer to us, existentially speaking, than our great-grandmother (out of politeness we should not mention our grandmother). These focal adjustments to our lenses result in what we call history. It is not a somber, plodding litany, in which a monotone voice indifferently recounts one trivial event after another. Instead, it is an exciting, rhythmically orchestrated epic poem, in which fabulous heroic figures, such as trilobites, giant dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, and lemurs, gallop toward us and make our hearts beat a little faster. Moreover, what is good enough for natural history is good enough a fortiori for the history of the human species. It does not tell us of the plight of Homer’s or Hegel’s chambermaid (pardon me, cleaning person).

Third turn of the screw: some people are antiquarians. These are people who collect curiosities, for example, trilobite fossils, giant dinosaur bones, woolly mammoth tusks, and lemur teeth. Other antiquarians collect monstrosities, such as photographs of five-legged calves, doubtful signatures from Dante, and even more doubtful fountain pens from Kafka. Tourists usually shop at cheap antique shops, while expensive shops deliver to museums. But, serious historiographers despise all kinds of antique shops. Unfairly. For antiquarians are the ones who make history. Historiographers are satisfied with putting their collected curiosities into a row, to make them into processes. But, it is not as if something actually happens in cultural history or the history of the human species. Instead, antiquarians belatedly thread their collected curiosities into processes, like pearls on pearl necklaces. It is not as if lemurs originated from dinosaurs, but rather some natural scientist pulled some threads between lemurs and dinosaurs together, so that it appears that lemurs originated from dinosaurs. Moreover, it is not as if the Baroque originated from the Renaissance, but rather historians visited antiquarian shops, collected some curiosities there, then divided them up into two piles. One pile they labeled “Renaissance” and the other “Baroque”. Ultimately, they connected these two piles together diachronically. And this is all very questionable.

At this point, the sophistic paradox reenters our discussion. Does the world consist of grains of sand, which amass themselves into dunes and resemble waves? Or does it consist of waves, which break against cliffs and then resemble dewdrops? Is a wave a mass of particles, or is a particle a frozen wave? In historical thinking, this is an insoluble ontological problem: Heraclitus on one side, Democritus on the other. In posthistorical consciousness, the problem is solved. History is a suspenseful narrative, because historiographers have processed the particles, the curiosities collected by antiquarians, into waves, into processes. Thus, history only narrates matters of suspense, because banalities are never taken up. Even apparently banal tales of everyday life are really curiosities that have been processed into processes. In comparison, antiquarians put their hands into the foaming waves of processes, to pick out curiosities. Trilobite fossils from banal rock, five-legged calves from a banal cowshed. In posthistorical consciousness, the question whether history (and reality in general) possesses either a particle structure or a wave structure is a nonquestion. It depends on the manner in which one reflects on history (and the world), whether in an antiquarian manner or in a historical manner. Finally, this insight is a further turn of the screw out of historical consciousness into posthistorical consciousness.