I ordered Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography some time ago, but I hadn’t gotten around to reading it until recently. For some reason–and maybe I just haven’t heard about it?–Flusser doesn’t seem to have much of a U.S. following, which may have kept me from delving into the book as quickly as I should have. It’s wonderful.
For someone accustomed to the visual theory of Barthes and Benjamin, Vilém Flusser comes out of left field. His writing on photography is refreshing–it has very little in common with the other currents of photographic theory. True, the basic problems that capture his attention are mainstream visual issues. Like Benjamin, Flusser is interested in the technical reproduction of images. Like Barthes, he wants to parse the relationship between text and photography. But beyond that point, the similarities end.
Flusser builds Towards a Philosophy of Photography on the dichotomy of image and text. He sees the image as a primal unit of human understanding based on what he calls magical relationships: reversible associations that have no cause, effect, or temporality. The invention of writing, Flusser argues, applied a linear organizing force to human perception, forcing people to view life through the filter of time and history. Here’s a somewhat simplistic example: whereas once the cock crowing and dawn were magically associated symbols, the invention of writing and history helped dispel that illusion and put events in proper order: the morning light wakes the rooster and causes him to crow.
As a technical image built from grains of silver or pixels, a photograph bridges the gap between primal images and linear historicity, building images from the combination of discrete units. Flusser believed the invention and adoption of photography re-injected the magical into our historical society, causing the masses to fall under the spell of images and sink back into idolatry. To a certain extent, he may have been right, but Flusser’s ideological stance is tainted by an unnecessary fear of the dominance of images over text. He denies what (I hope) most scholars nowadays would take for granted: that images cannot and should not be reduced to legible texts, and that to do so would constitute a reductive approach to photography.
That said, Flusser was still ahead of his time. His recognition that photography marked the beginning of our transition from an industrial to a post-industrial society–a society in which the old Marxist categories of industrialists and the proletariat no longer even make sense–is brilliant. His prediction that image theorists who didn’t recognize this would get bogged down in the socio-political powers creating images has also proven tragically apt. Rather than trying to dissect images according to an anachronistic narrative of empowerment and oppression, Flusser saw pictures as just one player in an endlessly complicated series of programs. Behavior is not merely coded by major corporations or capitalist bigwigs–bigwigs create goods that contain programs for society, but the desires of consumers likewise program corporations to create different kinds of goods. It’s a two-way street. In the case of photography, cameras create ideological programs for society; society responds in turn with modified programs for cameras, whose programs are dictated both by the corporations that produce them and the photographers who use them, etc., etc. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is–but that is Flusser’s great virtue: his unwillingness to reduce the series of interactions and feedback loops to the matter of some single conniving, powerful interest. His might be the first view of the web of forces originating in and acting on cameras that feels as complicated as the world really is.
The other great contribution of Towards a Philosophy of Photography is its understanding of the way the photographic program proceeds: as a kind of game of chance. For Flusser, the photographer enters into a game played against the camera every time he/she goes out shooting. Every photograph, then, is the result of a randomized game played by the photographer involving the combination of a number of discrete elements–perspective, subject matter, focal distance, shutter speed, etc. Once these possibilities are exhausted, the photographic program is exhausted. Photographers try to beat the program by either coming up with a new combination or making a photograph that somehow falls outside the photographic program.
Flusser’s understanding of the photographic program as enormous but finite–as the sum total of all combinations of photographic variables–is a great gift to visual theory. It goes a long way toward explaining why, after less than 200 years of existence, photography feels at risk for becoming painfully redundant. On the other hand, Flusser’s competing beliefs never quite resolve themselves. On the one hand, he swears to the finite nature of the photographic program (eventually everything will have to be photographed in every possible way); on the other, he cherishes the possibility of a sort of hero-photographer who circumvents the photographic program to bring about some kind of visual revolution. The two never really come together to form a consistent whole. As a result his aesthetic philosophy becomes bogged down in the question of whether there’s such a thing as photographic free will, or merely a randomized process that we mistakenly ascribe to free will.
Towards a Philosophy of Photography only deals with a very narrow slice of the photographic world: what Flusser calls “informative photographs,” or non-redundant photography. His exclusion of snapshots, photograph albums, fashion photography, and anything that isn’t photography-with-a-capital-P means he leaves a lot of uncharted territory. But the area he does cover–and the highly original systems he invents to describe it–should have guaranteed Towards a Philosophy of Photography a slot on any photo critic’s shelf a long time ago.