The Greco-Latinate root of the word “mass” – including its original meaning of “a lump of dough” – is found in many languages. The metaphorical use of the term appears most often in sociology: in opposition to the individual and the elite, or, in the Marxist sense, as revolutionary potential or a momentary mass of people. These ranges of meaning share the “concept of the many,” but it is a many which – desubjectivized – can be shaped from without (see the Greek massein, to knead). This unilateral, extrinsic treatment appears clearly in Vilém Flusser’s concept of mass communication, in relation to the shaping of a fundamentally diffuse public: “The mass continued to be programmed by images, although these images were increasingly infected by texts; they persisted, so to speak, in the magical consciousness.” (Medienkultur, 1997, p. 26; translated from the German)
Biographically, the programmed mass plays a decisive role as well for Flusser – in the matter of its murderous irresponsibility vis-à-vis the machinery of extermination, an irresponsibility that seizes the individual and makes him part of the mass. Flusser addresses genocide, mass murder; its unreality renders him incapable of speaking further about it (Bodenlos, 1992, p. 46). Massa also meant metal: the “mechanizing massification of Germany” (ibid., p. 45; translated from the German). The subservient mass and the mechanization of the industrial destruction machine are prerequisite to its unspeakable product. By contrast, Flusser’s image of “colonial Brazil, with its […] sleepily polite masses” (ibid., p. 41; translated from the German) is characterized by the concept of mass from physics: mass is an essential quality of a material body, the source of its inertia and gravitation – the reason for its resistance to changes in its current state of motion, but also the cause of attraction.
Every student knows the formula for inertial mass: F = mia. Flusser wrote tirelessly against inertia. In a letter to Milton Vargas, he said, “I believe that human culture will slowly but inexorably enter into an entropic process (mass culture). My text is meant to be the ironic but afflicted testimony of a survivor.” (“Vorwort,” in: Medienkultur, p. 18; translated from the German) His unfinished magnum opus, Flusser’s “becoming human” project, is incompatible with the masses.