Towards A Philosophy Of Photography: Willem Flusser Wednesday May 31, 2006

A quirky little book by a relatively unknown theorist, some of which I disagree with and some of which is rather contrived and tiresome. But he has some interesting ideas about photography, as you see in the following quotations.

This space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences. For example: in the historical world, sunrise is the cause of the cock’s crowing; in the magical one, sunrise signifies crowing and crowing signifies sunrise. The significance of images is magical. 9

The technical images currently all around us are in the process of magically restructuring our ‘reality’ and turning it into a ‘global image scenario’. Essentially this is a question of ‘amnesia’. Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives have become a function of their images; imagination has turned into hallucination. 10

The intention of texts it to explain images, while that of concepts is to make ideas comprehensible. In this way, texts are a metacode of images. 11

Nowadays, the greatest conceptual abstraction is to be found in conceptual images. 12

There arises a ‘textolatry’ that is no less hallucinatory than idolatry. Examples of textolatry, of faithfulness to the text, are Christianity and Marxism. 12

With writing, history in the narrower sense begins as a struggle against idolatry. With photography, ‘post-history’ begins as a struggle against textolatry. 18

Previously the tool was the variable and the human being the constant; subsequently the human being became the variable and the machine the constant. 24

(For photographers)…their interest is concentrated on the camera; for them, the world is purely a pretext for the realisation of camera possibilities. In short: they are not working, they do not want to change the world, but they are in search of information. Such activity can be compared to chess. Chess-players pursue new possibilities in the programme of chess, new moves. Just as they play with chess pieces, photographers play with the camera. The camera is not a tool but a plaything, and a photographer is not a worker but a player: not homo faber but homo ludens. 26

The shift of power from the material to the symbolic is what characterises what we call the ‘information society’. 30

Their stalking is a game of making combinations with the various categories of the camera, and it is the structure of this game – not directly the structure of the cultural condition itself – that we can read off from the photograph. 35

In order to be able to set the camera for artistic, scientific or political images, photographers have to have some concepts of art, science and politics: how else are they suppose dot be able to translate them into an image? There is no such thing as naïve, non-conceptual photography. A photograph is an image of concepts. 36

The act of photography results in photographs such as we nowadays are being flooded with on all sides. Hence a consideration of this act can serve as an introduction to these surfaces whose presence is ubiquitous. 40

Black and white photographs….translate a theory of optics into an image and thereby put a magic spell on this theory and re-encode theoretical concepts like ‘black’ and ‘white’ into states of things. Black and white photographs embody the magic of theoretical thought since they transform the linear discourse of theory into surfaces. Herein lies their peculiar beauty, which is the beauty of the conceptual universe. Many photographers therefore also prefer black and white photographs to colour photographs, because they reveal more clearly the actual significance of the photographs, I the world of concepts. 43

This is what characterises the post-industrial: the information, and not the thing, is valuable. 51

The photograph bound to paper nevertheless indicates the first step on the road to the devaluation of the material thing and valuation of information. 53

Every distributed photograph allows photography criticism to reconstruct the struggle between photographer and channel. It is precisely this that makes photographs into dramatic images. 55

As objects (the value of photographs is) negligible; their value lies in the information that they carry loose and open for reproduction I=on their surface. They are the harbingers of post-industrial society in general: interest has shifted in their case from the object to the information, and ownership is a category that has become untenable for them. 56

The camera is a structurally complex, but functionally simple plaything. In this respect it is the opposite of chess which is a structurally simple and functionally complex game 57

It is not the article that explains the photograph, but the photograph that illustrates the article. This reversal of the text-photo relationship is typically post-industrial and renders any historical action impossible. 60

We are by now sick and tired of explanations and prefer to stick to the photograph that releases us from the necessity for conceptual, explanatory thought. 62

Symbols that have become unencodable in this way suppress our historical consciousness, our critical awareness: this is the function that they have been programmed for. 62

Photographs suppress our critical awareness in order to make us forget the mindless absurdity of the process of functionality….photographs form a magic circle around us in the shape of the photographic universe. 64

Central to Flusser’s ideas is thus a critique of post-industrial society with as much provocative insight as Jean Baudrillard but with a sharp-edged perception that elevates his work into another domain. Baudrillard merely describes, says The Gulf War Never Happened etc, whereas Flusser deconstructs the nonsensical consciousness of contemporary living. Not so much false, as Marx would have it, as illusory: which is one of the criticisms I have of Flusser, when he assumes the validity of Marxism and inserts its polemic accordingly, with remarks like “renders any historical action impossible”. Dude, it’s not “historic” action we need because essentially Marx was concerned with what you eat, where you live, what you wear, and the complexities of fiscal-material-economic life. Which is philosophically rudimentary, doubtless significant for some circumstances, but not the basis for a deconstruction of the human condition which is how Marx was and still is regarded.

But some of Flusser’s remarks are truly excelllent, especially pertaining to the relationship between image, text, and reality: “There arises a ‘textolatry’ that is no less hallucinatory than idolatry. Examples of textolatry, of faithfulness to the text, are Christianity and Marxism” (12). The only addendum I would add here is to note that Islam, not Christianity or Marxism, is currently the pre-eminent and major problem. Its false consciousness and illusory ideology is expected in the primitive Middle East, and the 2006 cartoon riots showed the serious extent to which it’s been exported and is now violently defended throughout Europe. This clash of civilisations presents what would ideally be a fruitful philosophical situation, where the subject is now up for debate: what is so grave, so heinous, about a few satirical cartoons such as you find in politics or indeed with other religions? – leading to the metaphysical subject of a creative source (God), and how “being offended” at criticising its idea is semantically and philosophically irrelevant. The problem is, this and similar debates are never conducted in philosophical terms; what happens is people defend superstitious viewpoints and demand that other people “respect” what is questionable on the basis that they are “offended”: a discourse and rhetoric thus built on narcissistic emotional reaction. This position is inconsistent with the robust discourse characteristic of the modern world where we question, challenge, refute, and disagree – none of which is allowed within Islam. ‘Textolatry’ is a useful critical term – an “hallucinatory” adherence to a text – with a political relevance built on astute psychological understanding.

Flusser is very good on what we might call ‘false psychology’, as opposed to false consciousness: “The technical images currently all around us are in the process of magically restructuring our ‘reality’ and turning it into a ‘global image scenario’. Essentially this is a question of ‘amnesia’. Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world”.

Indeed. Baudrillard said much the same thing although lacking, as I noted before, a critical framework. Flusser describes an idea he calls reflective thinking which articulates what in Indian philosophy is called Jnana Yoga: a self-reflective, self-aware, phenomenological process whereby the parameters and limitations of cognition and thinking are acknowledged.