November 02, 2006

V. Flusser - Image - Technical Image

From the book "Towards a Philosophy of Photography" by Vilém Flusser, 1983.

Introductory Note

This essay is based on the hypothesis that human civilization has seen two fundamental turning points since its beginnings. The first occurred approximately during the second half of the second millennium, B.C., and may be defined as "the invention of linear writing". The second — we are witnessing it — may be called "the invention of tech­nical images." Other such turning points may have occurred in the more remote past, but they have effectively escaped our observation.

Such an hypothesis implies the suspicion that civilization - and thus human existence — is about to go through a basic change of struc­ture. This essay is an attempt to render that suspicion more palpable.

In order to preserve the hypothetical nature of the essay, I have abstained from quoting previous works on related subjects. For that same reason, there is no bibliography. Instead, I have included a short lexicon of terms basic to the essay or implied in it. The definitions pro­posed in it are not meant to claim any general validity; they propose themselves, in a sense, and should function as working hypotheses forthose readers who may wish to go further along the line of reflection and analysis offered here.

Hence the purpose of the essay: not to defend an extant thesis, but to contribute to a discussion about the subject "photography" in a philosophical spirit.

I The Image

Images are significant surfaces. In most cases, they signify something "out there," and arc meant to render that thing imaginable for us, by abstracting it, by reducing its four dimensions of space-plus-time to the two dimensions of a plane. The specific capacity to abstract planes form the space-time "out there," and to re-project this abstraction back "out there" might be called "imagination." It is the capacity to produce and decipher images, the capacity to codify phenomena in two-dimensional symbols, and then to decode such symbols.

The significance — the meaning — of images rests on their surfaces. It may be seized at a glance. However, in this case the meaning seized will be superficial. If we want to give meaning any depth, we have to permit our glance to travel over the surface, and thus to reconstruct abstracted dimensions. This traveling of the eyes over the surface of an image is "sanning." The path followed by our scanning eyes is complex, because it is formed both by the image structure and by the intentions we have in observing the image. The meaning of the image as it is disclosed by scanning, then, is the synthesis of two intentions: the one manifest in the image itself, the other in the observer. Thus, images are not "denoting" symbol-complexes such as numbers, for instance, but "connoting" symbol-complexes: images offer room for interpretation.

As the scanning glance travels over the image surface, it grasps one image element after another: it establishes a time-relation between them. It may return to an element already seen, and thus it transforms "before" into "after." This time dimension, as it is reconstructed through scanning, is thus one of eternal return. The glance may return over and over again to the same image element, establishing that ele­ment as a center of the meaning of the image. Scanning establishes' meaningful relationships between elements in the image. Space dimen­sions, as reconstructed through scanning, are those meaningful rela­tionships, those complexes within which one element gives meaning to all the others, and receives its own meaning from all the others in re­turn.

Such space-time as reconstructed from images is proper to magic, where everything repeats itself and where everything partakes of meaningful context. The world of magic is structurally different from the world of historical linearity, where nothing ever repeats itself, where-everything is an effect of causes and will become a cause of further effects. For example, in the/historical world, sunrise is the cause of the; cock's crowing; in the 'magical world, sunrise means crowing 'and'1 crowing means sunrise. Images have magical meaning.

If images are to be deciphered, their magical character must be tats ken into account. It is a mistake to decipher images as if they were "frozen events." On the contrary, they are translations of events into; situations; they substitute scenes for events. Their magical power is due to their surface structure, and their inherent dialectics, their inner contradictions, must be appreciated in light of this magic they have.

Images are mediations between man and world. 'Man "ek-sists," which means that he has no immediate access to the world. Images are meant to render the world accessible and imaginable to man. But, even as they do so, they interpose themselves between man and the world. They are meant to be maps, and they become screens/ Instead of pre­senting the world to man, they re-present it, put themselves in place of the world, to the extent that man lives as a function of the images he has produced. He no longer deciphers them, but projects them back into the world "out there" without having deciphered them. The world becomes image-like, a context of scenes and situations. This re­versal of the function of images may be called "idolatry," and we cart currently see how this comes about: omnipresent technical images have begun magically to restructure "reality" into an image-like scenario. What is involved here is a kind of oblivion. Man forgets that he prod­uces images in order to find his way in the world; he now tries to find his way in images. He no longer deciphers his own images, but lives in their function. Imagination has become hallucination.

The present is not the first time that this inner dialectics of image mediation has taken on critical dimensions. In the course of the second millennium, B.C., man became equally alienated from his images. Some men then tried to recall the original intention behind images. They attempted to destroy the screen in order to open the way to the world again. Their method was to tear the image elements out from the surface and to align them. They invented linear writing. In doing so, they transcoded the circular time of magic into the linear time of history. They created "historical consciousness" and history in the proper meaning of the term. Ever since, historical consciousness has been committed to a struggle against magical consciousness, and we may observe this commitment against images in the Jewish prophets and some Greek philosophers, more especially in Plato.

This struggle of writing against images, of historical conscious­ness against magic, marks all of history. When writing was invented, a new capacity came into being: "conceptualization." This is the capaci­ty to abstract lines from surfaces, to produce and to decipher texts. Conceptual thinking is more abstract than image-thinking, because (he former abstracts all the dimensions from phenomena except the linear. Inventing writing, then, man took a further step away from the world. Texts do not mean the world, but the images which they tear up. To decipher texts is to find out what images they refer to. The purpose of texts is to explain images, to transcode image elements and ideas into concepts. Texts are meta-codes of images.

The struggle between texts and images poses the question of the relationship between text and image. It is the central question of histo­ry. In the Middle Ages, the question took the form of the struggle be­tween Christian fidelity to texts against the idolatry of the heathens. In modernity, the question takes the form of the struggle between textual science and imaginary ideologies. It is a dialectical struggle. As Christ­ianity fights paganism, it absorbs images and itself grows pagan. As science fights ideologies, it absorbs images and itself grows ideologi­cal. The explanation for this dialectic is this: although texts explain images in order to explain them away, images in their turn illustrate texts in order to render their meaning imaginable. Although concep­tual thinking analyses magical thinking in order to do away with it, magical thinking infiltrates conceptual thinking in order to imagine its m concepts. In the course of this dialectical process, conceptual and magical thinking mutually reinforce themselves: texts become more imag­inative, and images become more conceptual. The process proceeds until the point is reached where the highest degree of imagination may be found in scientific texts, and the highest degree of conceptualization may be found in images of the kind produced by computers. The original code hierarchy is thus overthrown as if from behind, and texts — which originally were meta-codes for images— may have images for their meta-codes.

However, there is more to this dialectic. Writing, like images, is a mediation, and is thus subject to the same inner dialectic. Writing does not only contradict images, but is itself torn by an inner contradiction. The purpose of writing is to mediate between man and his images, to explain them. In doing so, texts interpose themselves between man and image: they hide the world from man instead of making it transparent for him. When this occurs, man can no longer decipher his texts nor reconstruct the ideas they mean. Texts grow unimaginable, and man lives as a function of his texts. A "textolatry" occurs, which is just as "hallucinatory as idolatry. An example of texlolatry is orthodox Christianity and Marxism: texts projected, undeciphered, into the world "out there," man experiencing, knowing, and evaluating the world as a function of his texts. An impressive example of the unimaginability of texts is furnished by scientific discourse: the scientific universe (the sum of the meaning of scientific texts) is not even supposed to be imagined. When we imagine something in the scientific universe, we are victims of improper decoding: he who wishes to imagine the meaning of the equations of relativity theory does not know at all what they are about. Since in the last analysis all concepts mean ideas (however logical analysis may define "idea"), the universe of science is an "empty" one.

Textolatry reached a critical stage in the 19th century. In the strictest sense, this was the end of history. History, in this strict sense, is the progressive transcoding of images into concepts, progressive explanation of Images, progressive demagicification, progressive conceptualization. Where texts are no longer imaginable, there is nothing more to explain, and history ceases.

It was precisely at this critical stage, in the 19th century, that technical images were invented: in order to render texts imaginable again, to charge them with magic, and thus, to overcome the crisis of history.

II The Technical Image

The technical image is one produced by an apparatus. Apparatus, in turn, are products of applied scientific texts, making technical images indirect products of scientific texts. The historical and ontological position of technical images is different from the one occupied by tradi­tional images — precisely because they are the indirect results of ap­plied scientific texts. Historically, traditional images were anterior to texts for tens of thousands of years, and technical images succeed to advanced texts. Ontologically, traditional images are first-degree abstractions, since they were abstracted from the concrete world. Techni­cal images, for their part, are third-degree abstractions; they are abstracted from texts, which in turn are abstracted from images which were themselves abstracted from the concrete world. Again historical­ly, traditional images may be called "pre-historical," while technical images may be called "post-historical," in the sense suggested previ­ously. Ontologically, traditional images mean phenomena, while tech­nical images mean concepts. Deciphering technical images implies a reading of their position.

It is, however, difficult to decipher technical images, because they are apparently in no need of being deciphered. Their meaning seems to impress itself automatically on their surfaces, as in fingerprints where the meaning (the finger) is the cause and the image (the print) is the effect. It seems as if the world signified in technical images is their cause, and as if they themselves were the last link in a causal chain connecting them without interruption to their meaning: the world reflects sunlight and other forms of light which are then captured on sensitive surfaces — thanks to optical, chemical and mechanical processes — and the re­sult is a technical image. It thus seems as if they exist on the same level of reality as their meaning. It seems that what one is seeing while look­ing at technical images are not symbols in need of deciphering, but symptoms of the world they mean, and that we can see this meaning through them, however indirectly.

This apparent non-symbolic, "objective” character of technical images has the observer looking at them as if they were not really im­ages, but a kind of window on the world. He trusts them as he trusts his own eyes. If he criticizes them at all, he does so not as a critique of image, but as a critique of vision; his critique is not concerned with their production, but with the world "as seen through" them. Such a lack of critical attitude towards technical images is dangerous in a situation where these images are about to displace texts.

The uncritical attitude is dangerous because the "objectivity" of the technical image is a delusion. They are, in truth, images, and as such, they are symbolical. In fact, they are even more an abstracted, symbolical complex than traditional images. They are meta-codes of texts, and — as will be shown later in this essay - they mean texts andonly very indirectly do they mean the world, “out there." Technical images owe their origins to a new type of imagination, the capacity to transcode concepts from texts into images. What we see when we look at technical images are newly transcoded concepts concerning the world "out there."

With traditional images, we recognize easily that we are dealing with symbols. A painter, for example, is interposed between them and their meaning. This painter has elaborated the image symbols "in his head," and he has transferred those symbols through means of a brush applying paint to a surface. If we wish to decipher such images, we must decode the coding process which has occurred "in the head" ofthe painter. With technical images, however the matter is not that simple. It is true that, here also, a factor is interposed between the im­age and its meaning, in this case a camera and the man using it. How­ever, this factor, this "apparatus-operator, does not seem to interrupt the chain between the image and its meaning. The operative word is "seem." On the contrary, the meaning seems to flow into the factor from one side (the input) and out again from the other side (the output). What occurs during this passage through that factor remains hid­den. The factor is the black box. In fact, the coding process of technical images occurs inside this black box, and every critique of technicalimages must concentrate on the "whitening", of the interior of that black box. As long as criticism fails to do this, we shall remain illiter­ate as regards technical images.

Despite this, we can make certain comments about technical im­ages even now. For example, that technical images are images and not windows, i.e., that they translate everything into a situation, and that they — as all images — emanate magic, seducing their observers to project this undeciphered magic onto the world "out there." This magical fascination proper to technical images is visible everywhere: how they charge life with magic, how we experience, know and evalu­ate everything as a function of them, and how we act as their function. It is, thus, extremely important to ask what sort of magic is involved here.

Obviously, it is not the same kind of magic as that emanating from traditional images: the fascination which emanates from a tele­vision or cinema screen is not the same fascination we experience in looking at cave paintings or at the frescoes in Etruscan graves. Televi­sion and the cinema exist on a different level of reality than caves or Etruscan graves. The older magic is pre-historical and antedates historical consciousness; the newer magic is post-historical and suc­ceeds historical consciousness. The old witchcraft aims at changing the world out there; the new aims at changing our concepts concerning the world out there. We are dealing, then, with a magic of the second de­gree, with an abstract sort of witchcraft.

The difference between the old and the new form of witchcraft may be so formulated: Pre-historical magic is a ritualization of models called "myths," and the current magic is a ritualization of models called “programs.” Myths are models transmitted orally by an author who is "god," that is, someone who stands outside the communicative process. Programs are models transmitted in writing by authors who are "functionnaries," that is, people who stand within the communicative process. (The terms "program" and "functionnaire" will be dealt with later in more detail.)

The function of technical images is to emancipate their receivers from the need to think conceptually, by substituting an imagination of the second degree for conceptualization. This is what is meant by my saying that technical images are about to substitute themselves for texts in our world.

Linear texts Were invented in the second millennium, B.C., in order to "de-magicize" images, although the inventors of texts may not have been conscious of this purpose, Photography, the first of all technical image processes, was invented in the 19th century to re-charge texts with magic, although its inventors may also have been unconscious of this purpose. The invention of photography is just as decisive an historical turning point as was the invention of linear writing. With writing, history as such begins as the struggle against idolatry. With photography, "post-history" begins as a struggle against textolatry.

The situation in the 19th century was that, essentially because of the invention of the printing press and the movement towards compul­sory public education, everyone came to know how to write; A gener­alized historical consciousness resulted, one which even penetratedthose social strata which had lived "magically" up to then, the peasantry; the peasantry began then to live historically, and became the proletariat. This was possible largely due to cheap texts: books, newspapers, leaflets and so on. Every sort of text was cheap, and produced a cheap historical consciousness, along with an equally cheap conceptual thinking. This led to two diverging developments: On the one hand, traditional images began to take refuge from the textual de­luge, moving into ghettos like museums, salons and galleries; they grew hermetic (i.e., undecipherable for the general public), and lost their influence on daily life. On the other hand, hermetic texts came about, to which cheap conceptual thinking was not competent; these hermetic texts addressed themselves to an elite of specialists (such as scientific literature, for example). Civilization split three ways: one for the "fine arts," nourished by traditional images enriched by concepts; one for science and technology, nourished by hermetic texts; and one for the masses, nourished by cheap texts. Technical images wereinvented in order to prevent civilization from falling apart at the seams, and their purpose was to be a general code valid for society as a whole.

Technical images were meant, first, to re-introduce images into daily life; second, to render hermetic texts imaginable; and third, to render visible the subliminal magic inherent in cheap texts. Technical images were meant to constitute a common denominator for the arts, science and politics1 in the sense of generally accepted values. They were meant simultaneously to be "beautiful," "true," and "good," to be generally valid as a code capable of overcoming the crisis of civi­lization, of art, of science, of politics.

In fact, however, technical images do not function in that way. They do not re-introduce traditional images into daily life; they substi­tute traditional images with reproductions, i.e., they put themselves in the place of traditional images. Neither do they render hermetic texts 'imaginable; they falsify them by translating scientific propositions and equations into situations — that is, precisely into images. And they do not render visible the subliminal magic inherent in cheap texts; they substitute this magic with a new form of magic —namely, a programmed one. In this way do technical images fail to constitute a common denominator capable of re-uniting civilization, as they were meant to do; on the contrary, they grind that civilization into an amorphous mass, and they result in mass civilization.

The reason that technical images function this way is that they work like dams; they are surfaces which arrest flux. The traditional images that flow into technical images become eternally reproducible there (for example, in the form of art posters). The scientific texts that flow into them become transcoded there and acquire a magical charac­ter (for example, the form of models which attempt to make Einsteinian equations imaginable). And the cheap texts, this deluge of news­paper articles, leaflets, cheap novels and so on, that flow into technical images find their inherent magic and ideology transcoded into a prog­rammed magic that is really proper to technical images themselves (as for Instance with photo-novels), Technical images thus suck all of his­tory into their surfaces, and they come to constitute an eternally rotat­ing memory of society.

Nothing can withstand the centripetal attraction of technical im­ages: no artistic, scientific or political act that does not aim at a techni­cal image, no daily common action that does not wish to be photog­raphed or filmed or videotaped. Everything desires to flow into this eternal memory, and to become eternally reproducible there. Every event aims at reaching the television or cinema screen or at becoming a photograph. Or, if the event does not openly admit its availability, it at least glances surreptitiously in that direction. The result is that every event or action loses its proper historical character, tending to become a magic ritual, an eternally repeated motion. The universe of technical images, as it is about to establish itself around us, poses itself as the plenitude of our times, in which all actions and passions turn in eternal repetition. It is from this apocalyptic perspective that the problem of photography will acquire the shape proper to it.

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