Towards A Philosophy Of Photography by Vilém Flusser
Book Review by Paul Tebbs

Source - Issue 27 - Summer - 2001 - Click for Contents

Issue 27 Summer 2001
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Towards A Philosophy Of Photography by Vilém Flusser
Published by: Reaktion Books
ISBN: 1-86189-076-1
Price: €10.95

Vilém Flusser's Towards a Philosophy of Photography is an important, ethically orientated, fully encompassing theory of photography. And, more besides. Photography serves awkwardly as an allegory for technology as a whole, and more subtly for translation and emigration. Published in German in 1983, it appears here in this English translation for the first time. Abandoning academic formalities such as a bibliography, footnotes, references to other writers (and without visual reproductions), the violence perceived to be done to the established critical topography is so great, that a glossary of terms is provided that has no 'general validity' to other writing. This is to overstate the case. Many familiar ideas float through this text (with an emégré's freedom from restrictive and sentimentalised allegiances) without detracting from its value.

Flusser claims that "the camera will prove to be the ancestor of alt those apparatuses that are in the process of robotizing alt aspects of our lives". The burden of any philosophy of photography is to provide "a model of freedom" for man's technological existence. The argument begins with the hypothesis that the invention of photography was as important as the invention of writing in the second millennium BC. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, texts had acted as 'metacodes' to traditional images, such as paintings, thereby impeding the compulsion to idolatry. But then texts began to fail, according to Flusser, becoming 'incomprehensible'. This is a surprising claim given the original and continuing success of the nineteenth century novel. But a symptom of the text's abnegation of an historical function, in support of Flusser's analysis, can be found in Flaubert's famous desire to write "a book about nothing... in which the subject would be invisible". With the text ailing, the progression of historical consciousness was brought to an end. A new mode of representation was needed: the technical image produced by an apparatus. Culture was now organised through a third order of epiphenomenal abstraction: the technical image acting as a metacode to the text, which had failed as a metacode to the traditional image, which stood in the primary relation to the world.

Photographs, unlike the texts they replaced, act as 'dams'. They "absorb the whole of history and form a collective memory going endlessly round in circles". History is stalled behind photography's incessant reproduction of past "action and agony". When not processing endless reproductions, photography translates the world into its own 'scenic' versions. These have no epistemic value. Reality, as such, is transformed into a "global image scenario" of insignificant information. The content of this information is circumscribed solely by the finite (but not exhaustible) possibilities of the camera's 'program'. In this 'photo universe', what is important is the realisation of as many of the programme's elements as possible. Photography is, in this sense, 'post-ideological' - privileging a plurality of scenes over the perfect one.

Flusser's conclusion is that photography, as with all technology, functions as an end in itself. The world is just a necessary condition for it to exist and society the feedback mechanism by which its programmes can be improved. Automatically, technology seeks the fullest realisation of itself through the expansion, maintenance and refinement of its processes. Photographers are mere functionaries controlling "a game over which they have no competence". "Human intention has evaporated". The worst offender is the amateur. His clubs are "post-industrial opium dens", where members get high on the structural complexities of the camera. Human freedom is ultimately protected by the few who are able to work against the camera and produce unpredictable information.

Flusser's negative analysis of photography's mechanical reproducability is familiar through the writings of Walter Benjamin. Yet given Flusser's complex understanding of the historical relation between text and image, the question is begged as to why book reproduction did not stall history long before photography was invented (in the 15th century). And why is technology excluded from the progression of historical consciousness? Present technology exists in an historical continuity with past technology, which is infused with past social and ethical values. Man not only learns about his past historical being through technology but decides his future through it as well. Flusser's philosophy gives photography a gratifyingly central, if ultimately negative, role in man's historical process of becoming. It is an important contribution to the theory of photography.

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