[Essay] Out of Language: Photographing as Translating

Nancy Ann Roth

Those of us who first approached the work of Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) through Towards a Philosophy of Photography(Flusser 2000)may well have found it puzzling. Why did he so rarely refer to actual photographs? Why did his terminology seem so awkward outside the immediate framework in which it was introduced? Why did so few of us — whether photographers, critics or teachers — absorb memorable phrases, such as “photography is the first technical image,” or “the camera is a toy,” or “to be free is to play against the apparatus” into our usual ways of thinking and speaking about photography?  I found Flusser’s terms and structures for photographydifficult to remember and apply, although there was no such difficulty with his remarks on writing, especially those describing writing and photography as supporting fundamentally different ways of engaging with the world.      

Years after that first encounter, with the publication of in the Andreas Ströhl’s anthology of Flusser’s Writings (Flusser 2002),the issues began to appear in a different light.  The texts in Writings were selected to provide an overview of Flusser’s thought. Within this much more comprehensive outline of a phenomenological approach to all of human communication, photography appeared to play a fairly small part.  Eventually I became familiar with the books that expanded and situated the account of photography given in Towards a Philosophy(Flusser 2011a and b, 2014a). Only then did Flusser begin to seem like a writer, rather than a philosopher or a media theorist.   This was someone who created a world, or worlds, in language. 

Flusser’s voice is reliably that of a phenomenologist, someone committed to avoiding preconceptions, “common sense” associations or logical assumptions, and relying instead on his own direct observations.  Such a writer must trust his reader to recognize something of his or her own experience in the account. Neither Flusser’s choices of topic nor his way of locating his own contribution within a field follows the protocols of academic philosophy; nor does he show any particular interest in “media” as it is widely understood in contemporary discourses, primarily as print and broadcast. In fact he rarely mentions media at all.  Rather he defines his topic — uniquely, I think — as human communication, in whatever time, place or form it may occur.  In such a framework, it is almost inevitable that communication technologies will assume prominent roles.  But in approaching them as a phenomenologist, always asking about the relationship between them and a consciousness engaging them at any given moment, he opens a framework in which these technologies take on qualities, positions, and interests. He also sometimes speaks of communication technologies as materializations of beliefs or attitudes, ideas that have coalesced into specific material practices.  Flusser, that is, effectively endows communication technologies with character and motivation.  He envisions them pitted against one another.  The most virulent and current such struggle is that between writing and an array of image-making technologies, photography being the first, the oldest of them. Writing, by this account, is committed to defeating images, or more exactly, to defeating the intolerably woolly thinking and repetitive expression characteristic of people who rely on images to make the world comprehensible. Photography, in its turn, embodies a counter-frustration with writing, a longing to escape the slow, tedious complexity, the difficulty of grasping concepts by means of words lined up on a surface, the effort of acquiring the skill. 

Like many writers, Flusser recreates something of the atmosphere of his own life in his books.  In his case, it is a climate of anxiety and struggle, early and permanent exile from anything approaching “home,” a radical loss of family, linguistic community, and all hope for a “normal” career in philosophy. What emerges as the antidote to loss and loneliness in this story is, again and again, invention, creativity, somehow rethinking, finding a new standpoint, a different relationship to the circumstances. The transformation of loss, isolation, despair into a perspective that admits possibilities, even advantages, something like “fact to fiction,” features both in his life and in his writing, always appearing as a movement, always beckoning readers to join in the same transition. Flusser’s account of photography follows the same pattern: from a commitment to the philosophy of language over the first 30-plus years of his career, he finds a new standpoint with a vista broad enough to encompass both languages and images.  From the earlier standpoint, photographs had appeared to resemble “traditional images” like drawings or paintings. From the new standpoint, the camera becomes a toy, the photograph a “move” that can be made in either old or new games in an atmosphere of proliferating games. Each game has its own rules and goals—but more to the point, each sustains crucial features of given person’s consciousness, his or her “universe”.  In short, photography is pivotal both to the story of communication as Flusser told it, and to the story he lived, in which a language philosopher thinks his way into a future world by projecting contemporary technologies forward in time. Stuck as he was in a universe of writing, sometimes ill at ease with even very commonplace technology (he didn’t drive an automobile, and despite owning a word processor, never abandoned his manual typewriter) he himself had hardly any experience of this new world. Still, his rather speculative thinking abruptly attracted a readership, an audience. People wanted to listen.   

Photography’s critical role in Flusser’s projected world rests on its having been the first game to require players to plug their eyes, fingers and brains into a device that produces images automatically.  Players, that is, necessarily surrender some measure of control. The rest of Flusser’s discussion of photography, in fact his discussion of “technical images” as a whole, including film, video, sound reproduction, digital synthesis — flows logically and imaginatively from this one insight, namely that such devices bind and shape their users’ cognitive functions.  That makes them something new in history. He seems to have foreseen the spread of mobile devices, the swelling numbers of people completely absorbed in screens and ignoring their bodies, the quick feedback loops between manufacturers and users of devices, the tendency for young people to adapt quickly to technical change and for older people to struggle with it. 

Flusser’s core concern is whether someone whose consciousness is linked to a partially automated device, playing a game with rules to which other players are similarly committed, can be genuinely free, that is, whether is it still possible to create something new under the circumstances.  It is a critical question, because such freedom, he contends, is a prerequisite for any life that can fairly be called “human”.  A truly human player is able to make the camera produce surprises, things the game designers did not anticipate. Flusser eventually came to believe that the game (or “program,” a term he often substituted) has exhausted its inherent potential, that as long as it is used as its designers intend, it can only produce redundant information.  He pinned his hopes for freedom on efforts to thwart the rules, subvert the design, “translate” between games, or, best of all, invent a new game altogether. 

Flusser’s writing spans two continents, three decades, and four languages.  He called his topic communicology, the theory of communication, and it absorbed him all his life.  In addition to books, he wrote reviews and columns, gave lectures and interviews and delivered conference keynotes.  Some of these are on tape in the Flusser archive in Berlin, and some have been transcribed (Flusser 2009). There is also a vast correspondence.  Any one such text may have first been written in German, Portuguese, English or French (in descending order of frequency), depending on many factors, but perhaps above all his own curiosity about what would happen to a given idea when it was translated.  Garry Winogrand’s famous claim that he photographed “in order to see what something would look like photographed” comes to mind, and in fact Flusser regularly described photography as a means of translating, specifically for translating concepts into images—but more on this below.  Flusser, in any case, translated his own work almost obsessively throughout his career, back and forth from one language to another (he wrote for publication in all four) in an effort to, as he put it, “exhaust” its meaning. It is therefore not uncommon for one of Flusser’s texts to exist in two or more versions in different languages.  Conversely, there is no access to the whole of his writing — on photography or on anything else — in any one language.

Photography as such belongs to the later part of Flusser’s work, that is, work done after 1972, when he left Brazil, where he had lived for more than 30 years, and returned to Europe. The changes that propelled the shift had been building up for a number of years beforehand, however. An autobiographical essay from 1969, entitled “In Search of Meaning,” (Flusser 2002: 197-208) in particular, gives some indication of the changes that were underway.  The essay tells of a complete loss of meaning in the wake of his flight from Prague in 1938 and, after a brief stay in England, his arrival as a refugee in Brazil in 1940.  Shortly after arriving, he learned that the Nazis had murdered his entire family. Between bouts of the severe depression that followed (he admits to a time of persistent suicidal thoughts), he embarked on a series attempts to find, or better, to generate meaning.  He looked first to language, an urgent issue under the circumstances.  It became the focus of his reading, writing and thinking, as well as the subject of his first three books, Língua e Realidade[Language and Reality], 1963; A História do Diabo[The History of the Devil], 1965; and Da Religiosidade: A Literatura e o Senso de Realidade[Of Religiosity: Literature and the Sense of Reality], 1967. Different as they are, all three contend that language creates reality (Osthoff 2007). By 1969, Flusser was earning his living as a writer of Brazilian Portuguese, contributing cultural criticism to journals and newspapers.  Based on a growing reputation—although still without academic credentials — he had become a university lecturer as well, often at odds with the academic administration but very popular with students. With the second of the three books written in Brazil, The History of the Devil(Flusser 2014b), Flusser had further established his “signature” writing style, intercutting assertion and argumentation with flights of imagination.  He had immersed himself for a time in music and had become something of a force in the administration of the São Paulo Biennale, the state-sponsored art exhibition that effectively represented Brazilian art both within and outside Brazil.  

“In Search of Meaning” concludes, in any case, with some thoughts about the new direction his thought was taking at the time. For reasons he himself says he can’t pinpoint, his engagement with language had begun to expand, to encompass other kinds of communication. He was, as he wrote, 

…looking for a way out into nonlanguage within the loops of the tissue of language…The theory of communication implies the theory of decision and the theory of games. And the theory of games implies art in a new sense.  This discovery was like a rupture of dams. Suddenly, I saw a whole new field of action extending before me: the field of critique and translation between games; the field of freedom (Flusser 2002: 205).

There is no specific mention of photography. And yet the juxtaposition of game theory with communication theory, all in connection with images (in the reference to art) lies at the heart of the “trilogy” of the 1980s that would project a new “universe” in the future: Toward a Philosophy of Photography, 1983 (Flusser 2002), Into the Universe of Technical Images, 1985 (Flusser 2011b) and Does Writing Have a Future? 1987 (Flusser 2011a).  It was not any slow-burning fascination with either making or looking at photographs, then, that attracted him.  In fact there is scant evidence of any special engagement with any of the technologies he would later group under the term “technical images,” e.g. photography, film, video, sound recording, or image synthesis.  It was the idea of games that opened “a new field of action” for him, the idea of communication as a rule-bound exchange of information. It led, in time, to the identification of photography as the turning point, the game that propelled all of us into the universe of technical images: Flusser had sought and found a way out of language.

Inasmuch as it drew on the idea of language-games, as introduced in Ludwig Wittgenstein’sPhilosophical Investigations(Wittgenstein 2001), Flusser’s interest in games would not have been unusual in the late 1960s. But his drive to get beyond language singles him out, as does his embrace of Wittgenstein’s further contention that the meaning of any proposition depends on its use. In 1969, Flusser was still a foreigner without academic portfolio in São Paulo. He did not have of the comparative security of a regular academic post, but was obliged to appeal to the wide range of readers constituting the market for cultural commentary. In the newspapers and magazines that published his work, he would have seen an increase in space allocated to images and a corresponding decrease in that devoted to text, suggesting the climate of confrontation between the two[I1] runs through his books from the mid-1980s on. 

On the evidence of the quotation given above, in any case, idea of a language as a game, presumably thinking of words as elements and sentences as “moves,” led quickly to the idea of “translating between games.”  He also began to establish photography as a means of translating from language-games — games that play with concepts — into images.  Games further offered a way of integrating his own translation practice into a comprehensive theory of communication.  In Toward a Philosophy of Photography, in any case, he clearly identified photography as a game: “The camera is not a tool but a plaything,” or “a photographer is not a worker but a player” [27], “Apparatuses are playthings that repeat the same movements over and over again.  Programs are games that combine the same elements over and over again.”[77]. 

Flusser defined a game as an exchange between people involving elements, or pieces, that can be moved about in meaningful ways according to rules. Chance and repetition often are critical factors.  And although I’m not aware that he ever called attention to it, it may have been the idea of games that lent support to the idea of continually moving between established communicative frameworks such as languages or programs without establishing a permanent “home” in any one of them.  For games have limits.  There is an outside, a point from which the scope and character of one game becomes perceptible in comparison to another. Flusser doesn’t exactly argue for the wisdom or value of thinking in terms of games, and seems to switch to “program” without appreciable shift in meaning: like Wittgenstein, he returned again and again to the same two examples of games, namely chess and language.  Games provided a flexible designation for structures that make communication possible, in any case, establishing certain essential elements and patterns without restriction to any particular time, place, materials or goal.  Games can be very old or very new, have many rules or very few, and appeal to different players in vastly different ways.  It is possible to be completely absorbed in a single game, or to chafe against its limits and long for a new one. Flusser maps his distinction between discourse and dialogue, his two basic kinds of communication, on to such choices. “Discourse” refers to exchanges governed by established rules, building a shared background or history among the players; “dialogue” refers to an exchange that arises from discourse, but that leaves the rules behind. Dialogue is the sole means that human beings have to create genuinely new information.  It can occur between different aspects or areas of one consciousness (An example was Isaac Newton, with celestial mechanics firmly in memory, watching an apple fall.), between two people, or between a human and an artificial memory—the familiar example of a book or painting or photograph sparking a new thought.  But it can also happen between two people playing the same game.  In the chapter entitled “To Create,” in Into the Universe of Technical Images,” Flusser gives the helpful example of two players at a chessboard, absorbed in an orderly exchange of information in accordance with time-honoured rules. The possibilities for such an exchange are not infinite, but they are very large, and both players are enjoying the game. The moment of dialogue begins at the moment they become aware that they are in in a state of play neither has encountered before. No longer interested in who wins or loses, both come away with something new [Flusser 2011b:100]. 

In 1988, Flusser was 67 years old and enjoying a degree of fame for the first time in his life.  The stream of publishers’ rejection letters that had accompanied him for most of his life had turned into a stream of invitations to speak and requests for interviews.  He owed the change of fortune to Für eine Philosophie der Photographie [Towards a Philosophy of Photography] (Flusser 2000) which had been published five years earlier at European Photography and which had sold beyond his or anyone else’s wildest expectations. When an interviewer asked him for his thoughts about why, after 150 years, there was still so little theory about photography, he answered: 

I don’t think I have developed a theory of photography at all, but have relied on Benjamin in my reflections.  I have not actually been concerned with the phenomenon of photography, but with the gesture of photographing, which is made available to us by way of the apparatus. I have been interested in that strange interplay that occurs here between a person and the apparatus; an interplay for which we have no past example…the apparatus is a tool.  We know just two relationships between people and tools from history: the pre-industrial, in which the tool was a function of the person, and the industrial, in which the person was a function of the machine. But with the photo apparatus comes a completely new relationship, in which person and apparatus mutually complete one another, forming an inextricable whole (Flusser 1996:35).

The value of this account rests on an understanding of two critical terms: gestureand apparatus.  The term “gesture” in particular, despite its apparently casual use here, refers to a very broad theoretical structure that occupied Flusser throughout his career.  For him, gestures are the stuff of communication.  Even the most abstract, apparently disembodied message passes between people by means that can be traced back to a “movement of the body, or of a tool attached to the body” (Flusser 2014b: 2).

At the point he was being interviewed here, Flusser had probably already written the essay, “The Gesture of Photographing” (Flusser 2014b: 72-85) — he wrote essays with the set title “The Gesture of…” at various points in his career. The essay is, in any case, Flusser’s most detailed account of the state in which  “person and apparatus mutually complete one another, forming an inextricable whole.” The essay walks its reader patiently through the use of the phenomenological method, framing the topic, specifying the observer’s standpoint, systematically rejecting assumptions and “common sense” associations that are likely to come to mind. The opening paragraphs resemble those of Barthes’s Camera Lucida(Barthes 2000)in the sense that both authors are consciously employing a phenomenological method, and both consider it necessary to clarify the terms of the inquiry at the outset. Yet Barthes and Flusser are examining completely different objects.  Barthes enumerates three positions from which photography can be directly observed: the photographer, the photographed, and the viewer of the resulting image.  He aligns himself almost entirely with the third standpoint, that of the viewer, so that the object to be analysed becomes his relationship to extant photographs. In “The Gesture of Photographing,” Flusser, too, lists three positions, but not the same ones.  He describes the photographer, the photographed, and the observer —us — watching, or supposing ourselves to be watching the movementsof photographer and photographed.  He aligns himself by turns with all three positions, and rules Barthes’s position — the viewer of the resulting image — out of the inquiry.  Flusser is concerned here neither with “photography” nor with “photographs,” but with photographing— not an object, but a movement. The movement starts when photographer picks up the camera, forming the “inextricable whole,” and ends with the decision to release the shutter.  It does not include the actual click or the events that follow.  

“The Gesture of Photographing” argues for a similarity, almost an identity between photographing and philosophical reflection. Flusser compares his own working process to a photographer’s.  In fact the essay contends that photographing  — the active movement, positioning, decision-making — represents philosophy’s first alternative to writing.  This seems to imply the possibility of displacing or replacing writing, although there is nothing of the atmosphere of contention and struggle between the writing and photography that permeates Towards a Philosophy of Photography.

It is characteristic of Flusser’s writing, as Rodrigo Novaes has pointed out, to expand, to circle out from and eventually back to a particular position (Flusser 2014b: xviii). Towards a Philosophy of Photographyis a case in point. It steps back from that positive comparison of photographing and writing as meaningful, productive movements and considers associated meaningful gestures, such as looking at photographs, being instructed by them, sustaining a pattern of feedback involving designers and manufacturers of photographic equipment, sellers of photographic products and services, producers of discourse involving forensic and scientific evidence, the work of journalists and artists. Still, the comparison of photography to writing that first appeared as a comparison of gestures never quite disappears.  

It may seem obvious, for example, that photographs are images, but as a phenomenologist examining a potential tool of philosophical thought, Flusser can hardly pass over it lightly.  In fact some of his most memorable insights stem from reflections on the differences between reading alphabetic texts and “reading,” that is, getting meaning from, images: very briefly, texts must be “decoded” in a fixed, one-directional order, and images cannot be.  He gives a telling example of the difference in a passage identifying mathematical language as cognitively visual – like photographs. It is impossible, he writes, for mathematical equations to be integrated smoothly into the flow of a scientific text (Flusser 2011a: 24-5). A reader whose eyes are scanning across the lines and down a page of text will have to stop at the equation, then cognitively shift into a space where the direction of thinking can move equally well in either direction, from one side of the equation to the other.  Something similar happens with illustrated texts.  The “flow” of thought stops, the eye moves around the image, and usually moves back to the starting point.    

This difference underpins two very different, in fact mutually incomprehensible understandings of time, one logical, linear, and fixed, the other circular, repetitive, variable.  Flusser often describes visually-grounded consciousness as “magical,” in that it admits the possibility of events repeating themselves or reversing order. The same fundamental difference also forms the basis for the two pivotal points in Flusser’s history of communication. The argument is that writing elicits and sustains logical thinking and a linear sense of time. Literate people perceive the past as a chain of events moving toward the present and into the future.  He calls this form of consciousness “historical,” and locates it between pre-historic, image-based, “magical” consciousness, and post-historical, visually-structured, mathematically-based consciousness.  In keeping with his own firmly historical consciousness, he describes a dramatic story of confrontation and conflict, a chain of events with consequences. First, in pre-history, comes speech, which, Flusser contends, remains close to babble — chaotic, repetitive, ephemeral — until it is subjected to the discipline of writing.  Then comes the invention of images, which can be preserved, but which eventually prove to be too vague to register complex evidence and specify obligations. The invention of writing about 5,000 years ago initiates a battle against the power of images. Alphabetic writing successfully and steadily represses images until the 19thcentury, when texts became so complex as to often be incomprehensible. That, he contends, triggered the invention of photography. The battle between images and texts continued, but writing now began to slowly lose, rather than gain ground.  As he describes it, photography — with the other allied “technical Images” — has already overcome the power of texts in most important ways.  

Flusser registers his own position in this slow, unremitting drama at the end of Does Writing Have a Future? By the end of the book he has effectively abandoned hope that he himself could learn the new codes. To learn to think in images rather than in concepts, algorithms rather than sentences—html instead of natural language, was simply too much. He would have to start again, like a small child, and he feels sure that those already at ease in the new world would not be interested in teaching him. It is, effectively, another form of exile (Flusser 2011a: 157-161). 

If we accept, perhaps heuristically, that images generally support a “magical” form of consciousness, at least in comparison to historical thought, we still need to understand how reading photographs is different from reading paintings or drawings.  For it is a fixture of Flusser’s thought that unlike any image that preceded them, photographs are the products of that cognitive mesh called the apparatus.  In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, he begins to describe the effects of the apparatus spiralling far beyond the immediate gesture of photographing. In fact the essay examines something like the “other side” of the “Gesture of Photographing” essay, taking up aspects of this technology that only become conscious when one is notactually photographing. It identifies the apparatus-like function of almost any human activity that requires coordinated communicative relationships among human beings, and that resists efforts to question it, what it does, why it exists. Apparatuses include disciplines such as science or law or art, institutions such as museums or schools or committees or councils, even nations – perhaps especially nations. “What is the purpose of France?” (Flusser 2014a: 17). The text further touches on the way the photographic apparatus adapts to—or resists–the needs of other apparatuses. 

“Apparatus” is the weight-bearing term of Flusser’s philosophy of photography.  It has a lot to do.  Sometimes it seems to simply refer to a camera.  Its more significant function, though, is to name the automated aspect of the “interplay,” the “inextricable whole” described in the passage above. It is this binding of eyes and fingers, the effective channelling of thought that sets the camera apart from any communications technology that came before, initiating of process of cognitive automation.  It is this that can, on the one hand, rob us of essential human freedoms.  It can, on the other hand, if fingers and eyes are connected to a different consciousness, be the portal to a new “universe.” When one such inextricable union of person and device is connected to many others, the apparatus develops into vast, substantially automated mesh with enormous power to control people—not so much how they act as what they think — whether they think.  Effectively, it controls hearts and minds.  

The usage of the term “apparatus” almost inevitably recalls Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” (Althusser 2002) and it seems possible that in reusing the term Flusser is at once acknowledging an old admiration of Marxism and explaining why he can no longer accept its premises. Like Althusser, Flusser uses “apparatus” to refer to a kind of connective tissue that binds subjects to institutions and institutions to one another, for the most part below the level of consciousness. Flusser’s version is different inasmuch as the apparatus is literally a device, and its decisions are substantially automated. This makes human subjects’ ideological convictions irrelevant or impossible.  It also opens a different space of potential resistance—within consciousness.  It is as if he is using two “languages” to describe the same phenomenon.  Threaded into the Marxist talk of tools and labour and production are other words, such as information, decisions, probabilities and play, concepts from game theory.  At almost any given point, then, a reader has both sets terms available, one for thinking of the camera as a tool for work and the other for thinking of it as a toy for play.

Flusser’s term for those who sustain and are sustained by the apparatus is “functionary”.  Particularly in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, “functionary” is a negative term, describing someone who is effectively enslaved, without the possibility of acting independently and creatively. What is perhaps not clear at all times is that any one of us, in addition to whatever else he or she may be, is and must be a functionary. By now the automation of decisions across the vast interlinked apparatuses is so far progressed as to make complete rejection unworkable—literally fatal. The choices we do have lie in developing an awareness of the apparatus, a sense for when it is exerting its claim on us and when the boundaries of that claim come into view, opportunities to exceed or disappoint or deflect expectations. We serve the apparatus most of the time just by, say, fulfilling a contract, showing up to work on time, paying the mortgage, being “fashionable” as instructed in print or broadcast.  But it goes further, to decisions that go against what you want or think is right, internal voices that say “you have to,” that you “have no choice” or “it’s your job”. Flusser is insisting, I think, that we do have a choice.  It may be a very subtle one, a shift in attitude, a decision not to accept the “obvious,” not necessarily to always choose the “cheapest,” the “easiest,” the “safest” option, to recognize the values that are imposed automatically, and judge whether we share them or not. We must choose in awareness of consequences, no doubt—and yet we have a choice.  It is possible, he contends, to adopt a new point of view, to rethink one’s circumstances, to be surprised and to surprise others. The apparatus tends to disparage such thoughts as “unrealistic,” “utopian,” “fantastic”.  Flusser cautions repeatedly against certainty in general, but in particular against certainty of a clear distinction between fact and invention. Beyond the limits of various apparatuses that demand our conformity in more and more precise detail, in the gaps and malfunctions, lie our spaces of freedom.  

In 1985, two years after the publication of Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser’s publisher invited him to write an introduction to Herbarium, a book of new photographs by Joan Fontcuberta (Flusser 1998: 113-116). These witty botanical fictions are now very well-known, as is Fontcuberta himself. But Flusser’s approach to them is not.  In fact the review represents a relatively unusual instance of Flusser following his own advice, applying the abstract concepts elaborated in his books to the criticism of specific images. The text starts with a question about the concept of “information”: could the term mean the same thing in two disciplines as different from one another as biology and photography?  Flusser makes a very concise argument — only about three pages long—that the Herbariumimages successfully address viewers from a point outside or above both biology and photography, a point of view that had not existed in either discipline or anywhere else until now.  In other words, the images are presenting new information. The text ends by answering “yes,” to the opening question, suggesting that Herbariumcould in fact shed light on questions surrounding the concept of information itself.  

TheIntroduction could well come as a surprise to Anglophone readers of Flusser’s writing, for very little of his criticism of photographic books and exhibitions has been translated into English, and in his theoretical texts, Flusser doesn’t often analyse specific images. Perhaps to accommodate readers who would see his text in a book of photographs rather than a book of philosophy, Flusser reduced the use of his own, then newly minted and relatively unfamiliar terminology in the review.  He does not refer to an “apparatus” specifically.  He calls biology and photography “discourses,” although elsewhere he quite clearly refers to such rule-bound structures as “programs” or “games”. He admires Fontcuberta for recognizing and ultimately breaking the rules of both.  He goes on to mention a third discourse, “art,” in passing, probably just to note its irrelevance to the discussion at hand. The designation “game” does not appear in this text.  But it is clear that Flusser considers the maker of the Herbariumimages to have successfully escaped the steady, subtle control of the “apparatuses” in play and established a space for free invention. He has produced genuinely new information. Flusser does not overtly reject or discredit the role photographs usually take in the serious study of plants, nor does he at this point condemn “straight” photographs’ widely-accepted relationship to an external “reality,” that is, a reality external to consciousness. He rather recognizes someone who is aware of both and able to act in a way that doesn’t conform to either. He recognizes someone who has, in other words, grasped conventional discourses as inventions, programs or games, and found a way to “play” with them using a camera. 

In the years following Flusser’s death in an automobile accident in 1991, Andreas Müller-Pohle, Flusser’s publisher at European Photography, and the writer’s widow, Edith Flusser, assembled a volume of his addresses, interviews and reviews pertaining to photography. Entitled Standpunkte: Texte zur Fotografie [Standpoints: Texts on Photography], it contains 48 entries, dating from 1980 to 1991, among them the introduction to Fontcuberta’s Herbariummentioned above (Flusser 1998). The texts vary enormously in length, focus and level of what might be called playfulness.  In one, for example, entitled “Kurzer Abriss Zweier Fototheorien” [“Short Sketch of Two Theories of Photography”] a camera is submitted in evidence in a formal debate  among angels about whether human beings actually exist or not.  In the second sketch, a deep sea squid, vampyrotheutis infernalis, advocates the development of an undersea photography similar to the photography employed on the surface of earth.  With such a tool, the squid says, we would be able to fix the light produced in our limbs and so record and communicate our ideas, hopes, and fears.  

If any one idea lends these short essays an overall coherence, however, it is a far more serious one, namely a blanket objection to photographic criticism as practiced in the mid-1980s.  He argues that because photographic criticism is almost always based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what photographs are and do, there is effectively no criticism of them at all. For unlike traditional images such as painting or drawing, photography is inherently critical, conceptual, the product of scientific and technical thought. To actually criticise photographs one must address their conceptual underpinnings. Critical thought must criticize itself.  Arguing against the classical criteria for judging images, namely that they should be true, good, and beautiful, Flusser writes  “It [photographing] is true inasmuch as science is true; good inasmuch as the camera functions well; and beautiful inasmuch as the media that distribute the photos allow them to model the viewer’s experience.” (103) The idea is stated in some detail in “Kriterien — Krise — Kritik” [“Criteria — Crisis — Critisicm”] (100-109), but may be more readily grasped in reviews of specific photographs.   

In “Nancy Burson: Chimären” [“Nancy Burson: Chimera”] (146-148), for example, Flusser, in keeping with his own advice, works back from specific images to underlying concepts.  He discusses Burson’s First Beauty Compositeof 1982, a face blending features of 5 celebrated movie stars, as itself a critical response to concept of “perfect” feminine beauty.  He goes on to “read” other composites, such as Lion/LambHuman/Chimpanzee, or Mankind(a person who is 57% oriental, 7% black and 36% white) as a prognosis of genetic combinations synthesizing real animals—and people—that combine features once distinct. The images Burson “computes,” as Flusser puts it, introduce something new, something that thereafter cannot be taken apart.  Another photograph Flusser reviewed was Boyd Webb’s Trophy of 1985.  “Boyd Webb: vom Inzenieren” [“Boyd Webb: On Staging, 1989”] (173-174), “A naked man,” he writes, “floats, weightless, in space and, with the gesture of Michelangelo’s Creator, throws some globes acquired in an office supply store toward a simulated heavenly body, where they sink, as if into mud.” (173) It is ridiculous, of course.  And Flusser reads it as a reminder that it is ridiculous to accept any image of a cosmic “scene”: 

All scenes magicians believe in, and all events historians believe in are staged.  In these scenes, things are set into relationships with one another.  And in the events things are fit into chains of causation. Only magicians and historians “forget” that we ourselves (people like Boyd Webb) have staged these relationships. This image is intended to remind us. (Flusser 1998:174)

It should probably be noted that the examples mentioned here are art photographs, the framework for Flusser’s work with European Photography.  Elsewhere in his writing he occasionally mentions news photographs or advertising photographs, not in the interests of any aesthetic judgement, but to support his contention that images show states of affairs that resist rational thinking, that effectively deflect attention from real engagement with events, with history. He seems to have had little interest, in any case, in so-called “straight” photography, in scenes produced when something in the world has triggered the photographer-apparatus mesh to release the shutter.   

If a writer develops a world in language, making a concerted effort to establish plausible premises and imagine the way they would play out, and if that world draws aspects of the writer’s life experience into play, we may well be justified in calling the writing fiction. But we would then have tacitly accepted a distinction between fiction and “factual” representation that Flusser was fundamentally unwilling to draw. Meaning, he thought, must be made. The foundations of, say, science, law, or history may be deeply convincing and durable, but all were made by human beings, and can be neither absolute nor timeless. 

Photographs, too, create reality.  He recognizes the feature that sets photography apart from painting or drawing, and describes it as effectively reversing the way an image becomes meaningful. The cause of a painting, he writes, lies in the painter’s eyes, memory, and fingers.  The cause of a photograph lies in the object photographed, in its effect on the mesh of photographer and apparatus. That makes photographs something different from any previous way of projecting meaning, but no less an invention. For Barthes, photographs insist that “This has been”; for Flusser, they say, “This is possible”.  

Flusser’s account of photography seems like a project in progress, incomplete, rich in digressions, sometimes apparently contradictory.  One of the most important of the contradictions, for me, concerns teleology, the idea arguably expressed most fully at the beginning of Into the Universe, that the story of communication is moving toward one of two possible endpoints, either “heat death,” a world without creativity, or a society creative beyond our current capacity to imagine.  But Flusser also insists that “photographs dam up the flow of history” (Flusser 2014a:126-131), that in the coming universe of technical images there will be no fixed temporal order, that the past could be rewritten in circles or random patterns or no patterns at all. If this is the case, why must we still be moving inexorably forward?  Why couldn’t the historical flow of events be pooling up now, provoking strange juxtapositions of old and new with no particular reason to think that new is better?  And if writing really is losing its authority, if in time it will become, as he suggests, an esoteric skill, like blacksmithing or hieroglyphics, why does he describe a role for photographic criticism – necessarily writtencriticism — with such energy and precision?  Why does the camera’s very character seem to morph from one setting to the next?  In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, the “apparatus” is chilly and fleshless, a forbidding chimera, constantly shifting shape and function.  It can be an instrument of automated oppression, yet under the right circumstances a toy, an instrument of joyful creativity.  The social function of photography is here deadening, there liberating. It’s as if he has his own games, each coherent in itself, but subject to the instincts of an obsessed translator—“games” become “programs”. “Apparatus” becomes “toy” or “plaything.” He isn’t penetrating to a core truth about photography, but insisting on photography as a very particular way of being in the world, with its gaps and “moves”, its resemblance to stalking prey, its use of its user. 

In his recent book The Philosophy of Perception: Phenomenology and Image Theory[Wiesing 2014], philosopher Lambert Wiesing raises the question of how a phenomenologist should write, how, that is, how experience can be shared without discrediting the reader’s experience in any way. Wiesing reintroduces a very old writing practice called protreptikos(Wiesing:60-63). Rather than trying to persuade a reader through arguments, a protreptic writer gives an account based on direct experience, describing the steps he took in getting to the conclusion. The reader then has the necessary information to follow the same path and arrive at his or her own conclusions.  Flusser wrote many different kinds of texts, from letters to fantastic tales, and “protreptic” would certainly not apply to all of them.  But it is helpful to think at least of the books that outline his core ideas, especially the trilogy of the 1980s that is the focus here, as protreptic. The books issue their readers something like an invitation to follow his phenomenological lead in reflecting on their own consciousness as makers or viewers of images, especially photographs, and especially in contrast to writing. Flusser confirmed, for example, my own experience of a profound difference between people whose relationship to the world is mediated primarily by images, and those who rely primarily on writing. I suspect that those readers who have taught writing-based subjects in higher art and design education will have no difficulty finding examples of their own. His insights into technologies as materializations of ideas, for example of photography as the resolution of an old debate about whether the world makes an impression on us, or we make an impression on it (photography confirms that the answer is “both”), remain particularly memorable for me as well (Flusser 2014a:72).

Flusser wrote his autobiography, entitled Bodenlos(Flusser 1992)—meaning “without foundation,” or “ungrounded”— when he was leaving Brazil and returning to Europe (it was published much later). The move coincided with his conclusion that he would not be able to make a permanent home for himself in Brazil, despite having tried for years to do so.  In fact he would not be able to invent a home for himself at all in the sense of a permanent point of reference, a fixed ground.  It would be the nomadic state itself, a state of transition between places and languages and frameworks that would become permanent. The formal recognition of his own Bodenlosigkeitcoincided in turn with his embrace of game theory, information theory, then photography, film, video, and computing.  It turned a practice of restless translation between languages into something positive, creative, free.  He turned exile itself into a condition that effectively demanded creativity (Flusser 2002: 104-109). I continue to find his account of photography unfinished, unsatisfying in some respects, but provocative, usually in the very same respects.  It is threaded through an account, sober and fantastic by turns, of one man’s shaping of his own reality.  Because it is a written account we, its readers, necessarily draw its meaning within whichever language-game it has been published, by way of literate, historical consciousness. We are left to determine whether photography, for us, holds as great a threat or promise as it did for him. 

Unless otherwise noted translations from German are my own.  

Althusser, Louis (2002) [1970] “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation” tr. Ben Brewster in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, New York: Monthly Review.

Barthes, Roland (2000) [1980] Camera Lucida, tr. Richard Howard, London: Vintage.

Benjamin, Walter (1972) [1931] A Short History of Photography,” tr. Stanley Mitchell, Screen13:1.

Vilém Flusser (1992) Bodenlos:eine philosophische Autobiographie. Bensheim and Düsseldorf: Bollmann.  

___________  (1996) Interview with Gerhard Johann Lischka 19 March, 1988, in the Kunstmuseum, Bern, 34-40 in Zweigesprache: Interviews 1967-1991, Gottingen: European Photography.

___________(1998) Standpunkte: Texte zur Fotografie, ed, Andreas Müller-Pohle, Göttingen: European Photography.

 ___________ (2000) Towards a Philosophy of Photography, tr. Anthony Mathews, London: Reaktion. Originally published as Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie, Berlin: European Photography, 1983.

____________ (2002) Writings, ed. Andreas Ströhl, Minneapolis and London: The University of Minnesota Press.

____________ (2003) [1996] Kommunikologie, Mannheim: Bollmann Verlag.

____________ (2009)Kommunikologie Weiter DenkenDie BochumerVorlesungen, eds. Silvia Wagnermaier and Siegfried Zielinski, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch. The book is a carefully annotated transcription of Flusser’s last lecture series in 1991.

____________ (2011a)Does Writing Have a Future?Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press

_____________(2011b)Into the Universe of Technical Images, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press. 

_____________(2014a) Gestures, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

_____________(2014b) The History of the Devil, tr. Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, Minneapolis: Univocal. Originally published as A história do diabo, São Paulo: Livraria Martins Editoria.

Osthoff, Simone (2007) “Philosophizing in Translation: Vilém Flusser’s Brazilian Writings of the 1960s,” delivered at re:place 2007:The Second International Conference on the Histories of Media, Art, Science, and Technology, available at http://pl02.donauuni.ac.at/jspui/bitstream/10002/444/1/Osthoff.pdf, accessed 8 June 2017.

Wiesing, Lambert (2014) The Philosophy of Perception: Phenomenology and Image Theory, London: Bloomsbury.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001) [1953] Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Blackwell.

Nancy Ann Roth is an independent researcher who has translated three of Flusser’s books from German to English: Into the Universe of Technical Images (2011b),Does Writing Have a Future?(2011a) and Gestures(2014b). She is based in Cornwall, UK.

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