Flusser on Immaterialism

Laurence Weiner, 1995

In a typescript paper entitled “Immaterialism”, Vilem Flusser comments that immaterialism used to mean a philosophical tendency to deny the reality of matter, as for example in the philosophy of Berkeley. It now often means a form of art which results in images without material support, such as, for example, holograms. ‘Matter’ is a basic concept of our culture, and if it has shifted its meaning, the entire edifice of culture will be shaken.

Our tradition, that is, as heirs to the ancient Jews and Greeks, defines “matter” with regard to two other concepts namely “spirit” and “form”, but it does so “dialectically”, meaning that the two concepts defined with regard to each other contradict each other. As descendants of this tradition, we do not permit any spiritualisation of matter or materialisation of spirit. For us, they are opposite concepts, and an abyss separates them: “spirit” contradicts “matter” and this contradiction manifests itself as “work”. The result of this contradiction is ‘culture’. Therefore, cultural objects, contradictorily, are materialised spirit and spiritualised matter.

This Gordian knot, Flusser contends, may be cut through either by denying the ‘reality’ of ‘matter’, immaterialism in the old sense, or of the reality of ‘spirit, (radical materialism).

‘Matter’ now looks very much like a series of Russian dolls, one containing the others. The biggest doll is astronomical, or Einsteinian. It contains the molecular doll, which is Newtonian, which, in turn, contains the atomic doll, where mass and energy merge, which again contains the nuclear doll, where causality abdicates in favor of statistics, which again contains the particle doll that poses curious problems of symmetry. The smallest doll is the quantum doll, where it is difficult, even meaningless, to distinguish between phenomenon and mathematical symbol.

Whatever philosophy says concerning ‘matter’ relates exclusively to the molecular level. On all other levels, it is nonsense to say that ‘matter’ is an ‘object of spirit’ or a ‘content of form’. This is so because we live on the molecular level, its dimensions being ours: our bodies are measured in centimetres, and our age in seconds. All the other levels of matter are existentially immeasurable for us, and do not concern us. [They are not matters of concern for us]. The eternal problems of philosophy are thus our problems.

This gives rise to a curious suspicion: what if ‘spirit’ were the name we give ‘matter’ on the level of particles; and what if ‘matter’ were the name we give ‘spirit’ on the molecular level? This might not sound like a very original suspicion, as it sounds like spiritism, but unlike spiritism it permits technical experimentation.

Science says that the universe is a process of ever more uniform disribution of the particles it is composed of. It tends toward total loss of form. This tendency toward loss of form may be taken as a measure of the age of the universe as a whole, and of every phenomenon therein. The equations which permit this measuring are those of the second principle of thermo-dynamics.

What we call ‘matter’, then, is an improbable form of energy, and it will decay into uniformly distributed heat, thermal death. Thus ‘matter’ and ‘form’ come to mean the same thing, namely a transitory and improbable stage of energy distribution.

The central position which the concept ‘probability’ is taking has something to do with games, with chance, with luck, with accidents, in short: with dice. The universe appears as a kind of blind game in the course of which accidents may occur, unforeseeable situations.

What one sees, if one looks at those images like videoclips, holograms, or sythetized images on computer screens, i.e. one of the senses of immaterialism, are highly improbable configurations of particles like photons. With synthetic mages, the strategy used in this game against game is clearest. It is the strategy of computation; and this is precisely what the term ‘immaterialism’ has come to mean: a deliberate play with particles, so that they may acquire improbable forms, that they may become (pieces of) information, using the strategy of computation.

If one throws out metaphysics through the door, it comes back through the window. Still, the future ‘immaterial’ culture, the culture of ‘pure information’, will be almost completely different from ours. It is this which is suggested by the shift in the meaning of the word “immaterialism”, Flusser concludes.


Flusser, V. (no date). Immaterialism. FlusserBrasil. Available from http://www.flusserbrasil.com/arte72.pdf [Accessed 23 October 2016].


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