Entre a Escrita e a Imagem: Entrevista a Sybille Krämer

Sybille Krämer é professora agregada desde 1989 no Instituto de Filosofia da Freien Universität Berlin e tem sido professora e investigadora visitante em universidades e institutos de vários paises. Foi membro do Wissenschaftsrates (2003-2006), membro permanente do Colégio de Ciências de Berlim (2006-2008) e é, desde 2007, membro do Painel Científico do European Research Council. Em 2010 foi eleita para o Senado da Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft. A sua investigação, amplamente reconhecida, tem-se desenvolvido sobretudo no domínio da filosofia dos media, orientada para uma interrogação dos fundamentos da cultura, com particular incidência nas temáticas da escrita e dos processos de simbolização e também, na interseção entre estes e os campos do som e da imagem. Entre a sua obra publicada destacam-se Media, Messenger, Transmission. An Approach to Media Philosophy (Amesterdão: Amsterdam University Press, 2015) Sprache — Sprechakt — Kommunikation. Sprachtheoretische Positionen im 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), Symbolische Maschinen. Die Idee der Formalisierung in geschichtlichem Abriß (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1988).

Maria Teresa Cruz and Maria Augusta Babo: Your perspective on writing, based on its material character, discusses the possibilities that symbolical notation brought to the development of artificial languages and algebraic, arithmetic and geometric calculus. The consequential opening up of writing to the epistemic domain is based on the economy of signs and their ars combinatoria. Could you kindly explain what «operative writing» means in this context?

Sybille Krämer: For a long time writing was considered written language. But there are writings that we use in everyday life (roman numerals), in science (chemistry, mathematics), the arts (choreography, musical notation) and technology (programming languages) that cannot be translated orally. Even our regular alphabetic writing indicates through spaces between words, punctuation and capitalization that writing can do more than just fixate spatially our spoken language. What then is this surplus in the creative potential of writing? Let me explain it by using operational writing as an example. The decimal system, for instance, makes it possible to calculate through writing. With a small repertoire of figures (0 to 9) we can represent all numbers and solve calculations by means of written operations with ease. We now have a symbolic machinery that reduces our mental effort by manipulating signs through syntactic-mechanic operations, which are independent of their meaning and signification: we do not have to know what zero means as a mathematical object in order to use the figure «0» to calculate correctly. Operative writing is a calculus. But not all writing with numbers is necessarily so. You could not calculate with roman figures. Only when the Indians invented the decimal numeral system, introduced in Europe by the Arabs, we finally had a cultural technique with which we could make calculations. The decimal numeral system was responsible for the rise of European commerce-based capitalism. The Medici were the first to change from accounting with roman numbers to the Indian system. The development of modern sciences is also unthinkable without the invention of operative writing that is independent from language. All our modern mathematical innovations (analytic geometry, fundamental theorem of calculus, etc.) extrapolate the procedures of writing calculus to higher mathematics. It was not by chance that Alan Turing modelled his Turing-machine, with which he anticipated the programmable digital computer, on the example of a human who calculated in writing.

MTC/MAB: Is there any connection between the idea of «operative writing» and your concept of «notational iconicity»?

SK: We usually take a hermeneutical approach towards writings: we want to grasp the deeper structure of a text, the meaning behind the letters, the significance beyond the sensuality of the script. The concept of «notational iconicity» articulates, on the other hand, a non-hermeneutical perspective. It points to the surface of writing, to its visual perceptivity and its material handling capacity. Writings are orders that can always be re-arranged: this is where their creative potential lies. Through the interplay between hand and eye writings open up operational spaces with which we can organize ideas, shape poems, compose musical pieces or develop computer programs. In order to comprehend notational iconicity it is important to understand that the visuality of writing is seen as a form of spaciality: speaking takes place as a linear sequence in time. But writings are not linear since they use the horizontal and the vertical. They share this two-dimensionality with paintings and drawings. Written calculations — the ideographic structuring of a text page through title, footnotes, or writing games such as Sudoku and crossword puzzles — testify this two dimensional alignment.

MTC/MAB: When you speak of the iconicity of writing it is not in the Peircean sense, that is, that writing and letters are understood as signs that maintain analogical relations or even certain proprieties of the object they represent. How do you consider this iconicity of notation if writing is part of a symbolic regime, absolutely conventional, and, therefore, distinct from the geometric regimes and diagrams, where we can indeed encounter certain properties of the object in the «representamen»?

SK: Pierce articulated his understanding of images and language with a terminology of sign processes. This is too narrow an explanation, since a semiotic perspective can never explain sufficiently what a language or an image is. It is true that we differentiate between digital and analogue systems of representation, between speaking and showing, and that languages and writings are considered digital forms of representation, and diagrams, maps and images as analogue systems of representations. But this classification is problematic. All applied symbolic forms are mixed phenomena, in which the aspects of verbal discourse and iconic imagery connect. This is already true for language: when we speak, our voice becomes the involuntary trace of our body and leads its own analogue life, which is not completely controllable by the speaker: the voice can expose what is not being said. This interplay between saying and showing is even truer for writing. Take for example lower case and upper case, which signals towards grammatical differences that are only revealed in a text and not when we speak it. The typeface offers us a cartography of language. The nowadays self-evident idea that language is an autonomous communication system, which needs to be differentiated from mimic and gestures, is a projection of our writing: it was only after the invention of phonetic writing that speaking was separated from other means of communication: gesticulation, direction of the gaze of the speaker, prosody of language. Only then language could be detected as a solitary system. Alphabetical writing does not simply record language but constitutes it as a relatively stable system.

MTC/MAB: But, then again, how do you interpret the iconicity of writing compared to that of drawing? What significance has the materiality and visibility of the line, which can be found, for instance, in pictographic writing? Are there contaminations? And what about mixed practices of drawing and writing? How can visual poetry be understood, or even concrete poetry? Or Paul Klee’s paintings?

SK: We should not throw writings, drawings and images all together in the same pot. We have to realize that the human being is a bilingual being, since he is, on the one hand, capable of acoustic-temporal speaking and, on the other, of visual-spacial graphism, which is the source of his capacity of imaging. We encounter early forms of sign language in the animal world but they are not at all comparable to graphism. Philosophy was for a long time the absolute reign of language, while now many authors have transformed it into the absolute reign of the image. You cannot pit the linguistic turn against the iconic turn. That is why the question of «mixed practices» is so important: the creativity and innovation in human culture consists in the creation of synthesis between the temporal-sequential and the spatial-simultaneous forms of symbolism — as it happens in writings, diagrams and maps. Something is striking: since Kant we consider time and space as equal-ranking forms of experiences. But it is no coincidence that we only speak about time in spatial terms: point in time, time period, timeline. Whenever we are disoriented we fall back on spatial schemes — this is not only true for maps but also when it comes to theoretical work: formal writing, diagrams, graphics show that we use the medium of spatial relations so as to get orientation in a field of knowledge. So far, any mathematical proof, whether formal or figural, has drawn on an areal organization, which is used as a matrix for the line of thought.

MTC/MAB: How should we understand the intersection between «Grammatics» and «Diagrammatics»? Should we distinguish between systems consisting of discrete entities or symbols and other types of graphical representation that derive directly from drawing or design (as it was theorized from the Renaissance onwards)? How can we understand the fact that, although operating without discrete entities or any direct relation to algebra, drawing and design may also offer a cognitive operability in the field of techno-scientific representation?

SK: The intersection of «grammatics» and «diagrammatics» results from the fact that writings, graphics and diagrams are cultural techniques that make flattening out possible. The discovery that flattening is a means of representation is, anthropologically speaking, a decisive moment. Our body and its differences between upper and lower, front and rear, right and left is our first reference for orientation in the real and three-dimensional world. This means, however, that there is always an invisible and uncontrollable zone of «behind» and «underneath». By creating two-dimensional surfaces on which we can inscribe words and images we produced a special, completely visible and — most importantly — controllable space in which behind and underneath are wiped out. I believe that the discovery of an inscribable surface for words and images caused the same mobility and creativity in our minds as the invention of the wheel generated with regard to our bodily capacities. Perhaps we should see the internet, potentially, as the medium of a gigantic flattening, since it organizes thousands of different activities into one aligned, well-arranged and accessible representation. Accordingly, can we then interpret the massive surveillance by the secret services as a radicalized form to maximize our cultural technique of flattening, aiming to wipe out the invisible in favour of a well-arranged order?

MTC/MAB: Can we think about digitalization and computer graphics as a new cultural technique that finally dissolves the barriers between all kinds of notational systems, as well as between languages operating in space and languages operating in time?

SK: The importance of the computer consists in transforming almost all media formats into one another. Even though we understood the computer initially as a «thinking machine» or as artificial intelligence, as an apparatus that generates something new by processing, we now see that its main function consists in making something transformable. A variety of media formats like music, images, languages, writings, maps, etc. can be translated into each other. The key aspect is: the translation includes both time and space. The cultural technique of graphism reveals a timeline: time is spaced out; a temporal process can be visualized through a line. The computer offers a different operation: time is implemented into spatial structures, space becomes temporal. This is how computer simulation becomes viable — today an irreplaceable instrument for science, which makes it possible to try out theories.

MTC/MAB: Is it in your opinion possible or not to transpose the emphasis you place on the materiality of writing to reading? From an anthropological point of view, but also from a cognitive one, do you think that writing stems from a reading process, from the way we see the world? Is it a rationalization of the gaze? Is this what happens in astronomy? In other words, is our ability to find relationships between the stars analogous to the order of reading, to our capacity of articulating disparate and isolated elements into organized and discrete elements? Would the principle of writing be precisely that, a discretization of the world? What, then, is your view on the processes of reading, in its cognitive specificity and its intrinsic relationship with writing?

SK: This is a fundamental question: does writing precede reading, or was reading there first? If we understand writing within the horizon of the cultural technique of graphism, that is, as the art of inscribing something on a surface, than scribbling would be the prototype of images and writing. Scribbling has no anticipated form, it follows no intention or convention, it is the trace of an almost unconscious motoric movement of the hand; but it is also a creative and productive capacity that anticipates interpretation. From this point of view, writing comes before reading and interpreting. We encounter an equivalent in the phenomenon of star constellations: constellations arise because lines are used to arbitrarily connect stars that have nothing to do with each other into memorable groups. This is only possible because the star configurations are virtually drawn as images, passed on profusely and imbedded in a narrative so that members of a culture can identify them factually as figures in the sky and use them for navigation or geographic orientation. Star configurations do not exist. We produce them through graphic operations with the help of arbitrary lines that connect stars. Doing precedes construction and interpretation.

Translated from German by Carolin Overhoff Ferreira.