Vilem Flusser

Vilem Flusser (1920-1991) was, after Marshall McLuhan, one of the most important media theorists of the late 20th century. He’s still not very well known in North America; but I find him far more profound and rewarding than, say, Baudrillard or Virilio (let alone Neil Postman or Paul Levinson).
Towards a Philosophy of Photography, originally published in 1983, is a brief and trenchant discussion of how photography (even before it became digital) serves as the prototype for a fully programmed, post-industrial, post-historical, informationcentric world. Flusser is less sentimental and melancholy than Roland Barthes (Camera Lucida), and more concise and rigorous than Susan Sontag (On Photography). He argues that photography represents a higher degree of abstraction than the writing which it has to a great degree supplanted, even as writing represents a higher degree of abstraction than the painted and drawn images that it supplanted several thousand years ago. Photographs do not render the real; rather they transform it into a highly codified sort of “information.” A photograph doesn’t represent the scene, person, or object being photographed, so much as it represents, and fulfills, the program of the photographic apparatus itself, a program that (like any entity under conditions of Darwinian competition) seeks nothing more than its own perpetuation and extension. Where handmade images promoted magical thinking, and writing promoted conceptual and historical thought, photography and all the technical forms of reproduction that have arisen in its wake actually work to program thought, to anticipate it ,and to mimic and contain it in advance. To simulate thought, in sum.
But unlike other critics of the rule of simulacra, Flusser evidences no nostalgia. He has no Baudrillardian yearning for a “real” that would have supposedly existed prior to photographic reproduction. And he explicitly criticizes the Frankfurt School, for the humanist nostalgia behind its attempts “to unmask the [class] interests behind the apparatuses.” Such approaches merely seek to reinstate the humanistic subject that photography and other post-industrial technical apparatuses have destroyed once and for all.
For Flusser — and this is part of what is so great about him — the only way out is the way through. “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of automated, programmed, and programming apparatuses, in order finally [italics mine] to show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.” It is only possible to invent a new practice of freedom, in other words, when we plumb technical programming (starting with photography, and moving on, today, to digital computing and communications) to the depths; when we take the full measure of what it has accomplished; when we give up our illusions of recovering a supposed pre-photographic, pre-technological mode of being.

One Response to “Vilem Flusser”


    In his The Pinocchio Theory Steven Shaviro makes mention of Vilem Flusser’s book Toward a Philosophy of Photography. I haven’t