Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 7

POP 2 (2) pp.

195201 Intellect Limited 2011

Philosophy of Photography
Volume 2 Number 2
2011 Intellect Ltd Miscellaneous. English language. doi: 10.1386/pop.2.2.195_7

Vilm Flusser

Towards a theory of

The invention of photography constitutes a break in history that can only be understood in compar-
ison to that other historical break constituted by the invention of linear writing. With linear writing,
history in the narrow sense of the word begins. With photography begins a mode of being
(Daseinsform), the sense of which is captured by the concept of post-historical Dasein in a merely
negative manner. The following article will address this concept.
Photography (and subsequent techno-images such as diapositives, films, television, video, holo-
grams, etc.) has to be strictly separated from pre-technical images if its essence is to be grasped.
Both pre-technical and technical images are signs of scenes. However, whilst pre-technical images
(cave paintings, frescos, mosaics, church windows, paintings, etc.) reveal that they are symbols of the
scenes they signify, technical images assume the status of being symptoms of the scenes that they
signify. Whilst a painting, for instance, openly reveals that it was produced (codified) by a human
agent, the photograph makes one believe that it was produced by the depicted scene itself. This is a
sleight of hand. Techno-images are essentially illusions; they are ideologically distorted signs. They
obscure their relation to their meaning. As, in large part, messages concerning the world nowadays

Vilm Flusser

are received in the form of technical images, it is a pressing task for critics (and intellectuals in
general) to expose the illusions that are hidden in such images and to de-ideologize them.
Pre-technical images are symbols in the following sense: they are signs that need to be decoded.
The recipient of a painting, for instance, must try to identify the painters intention if he wants to
receive the message of the painting. This means that he must decipher the painters code. The
scene intended by the painter appears codified within the painting in the form of consciously or
unconsciously agreed upon signs. The one who can decipher these signs (the one who enters into
the agreement proposed by the painter) recognizes the meaning of the scene signified by the paint-
ing: as subjective fact, as dream, as image of horror, as ideal and so on. The ability to decipher
pictures in such a way shall be called, here, Vorstellungskraft/imagination. Pictures are decoded thanks
to their recipients imagination.
Technical images assume the status of symptoms in the sense of being signs caused by their
meaning. The photograph is the result of a complex of processes that are, amongst other things,
optical, chemical and mechanical: sunrays are reflected by a scene, accumulated inside a lens and
trigger chemical reactions. The signs that appear in a photograph are bound to the scene it signifies
by means of a closed yet complex chain of causation: a chain like the one linking footprints in the
snow to the feet of a dog, fingerprints to a finger or a rash to the illness that caused it. They are,
precisely, symptoms. One does not need to decipher photographs in order to receive their message.
They harbour no hidden intention but are faithful reproductions of that which they intend and are
supposed to be objective images of the scenes they depict. One can only doubt their truthfulness in
the same way that one might say, I cant believe my own eyes.
Even though it goes without saying that such an account of the ontological position of the photo-
graph with regard to its intended scene is false, the illusion that becomes increasingly stronger due
to the process of technical perfection makes us fall for it over and again. Time and again, we are led
to uncritically accept the messages of magazines, television news, documentary films, etc. Despite
knowing better, we believe that we have, indirectly, that which the technical image intends before
our very eyes. In fact, this is precisely the Abbild/intention of most technical images, a constant stream
of which we are exposed to, everywhere we go: to make us believe their symptomatic character and
forget their actual, but hidden, symbolic character. Despite their inherent illusion, it is possible to lay
technical images bare as symbols and to decipher them, bringing their hidden and masked inten-
tions to the recipients attention. The ability to do so shall be called, here, techno-imagination. Technical
images can be decoded thanks to techno-imagination and the intentional illusion harboured by
contemporary image-civilization can be unmasked by its means.
The chain that links the photograph to the scene it depicts constitutes a conjuncture that is of
extraordinary significance for the present: namely the joining of the camera and its photographer.
Techno-imagination must focus on this joint if it wants to decipher the message of the photograph.

Towards a theory of techno-imagination

1. Of its available senses, At first glance, it is a matter of a human (the photographer) and a tool (the photographic apparatus)
the German word
Aufnahme is used
and thus is a situation, the structure of which reminds one of other situations (perhaps: painter/
to describe both paintbrush, smith/hammer, peasant/plough). However, on closer inspection (through phnomenolo-
the capturing of a gischer Schau/phenomenological intuition), this resemblance proves erroneous. In the other situations
photograph and the
absorption of sensory mentioned above, the tools movement functions according to the movement of the human like an
information in percep- extension of his body: the paintbrush as an extended finger, the hammer as an extended fist, the
tion. In English, in the plough as an extended toe. These are functions in which the human is the constant and the tool the
context of photography,
it can be translated as variable. When photographing, the movement of the camera is not only a function for the photog-
exposure, photo- rapher, but he also moves as a function of it. He is the functionary of the camera apparatus.
graph, photographic
view and reception.
The camera apparatus is, indeed, a kind of tool, but of a type in which the relation between
human and tool is revolutionarily inverted. This kind of tool is called machine: machines are tools
that, like all tools in general, simulate human organs in order to facilitate or enhance their function.
However, unlike traditional tools, the simulation of organs in machines has been filtered through
scientific understanding. They are technical tools in the sense in which technics is applied science.
In this way, machines become tools whose function is obscure for the human who is using them. He
no longer makes use of them but he serves them. In principle, the industrial revolution is nothing
but this revolutionary inversion of the relationship between human and tool.
The camera, however, is a special kind of machine. Machines and traditional tools alike generally
serve the purpose of work, which means: they are supposed to change the world. However, in
special instances, machines might not serve the purpose of changing the world but of changing the
meaning of the world. Such symbolizing machines are called Apparate/apparatus . In general, they
simulate sensory organs. Optical apparatuses such as the Fotoapparat/camera, for instance, simulate
the eye. Because the symbolic function of sensory organs is not as evident as their perceptive func-
tion (because it is not immediately apparent that the eye gives sense to the world rather than merely
perceiving it), the function of apparatuses is often misunderstood. On the one hand, the camera is
seen as a traditional tool and photographing is described as work. On the other hand, it is seen as
a sensory organ and taking photographs is described as Aufnahmen/exposure.1 In fact, giving-sense
(Sinngebung) is the most important function of apparatuses. This is true for all apparatuses: for
administrative or party apparatuses, as well as the telephone or television. This is why a lack in
understanding of the function of apparatuses presents such extraordinary danger in a situation
where the life of the individual, as well as that of society, is increasingly guided by apparatuses. And
it is for this reason that the examination of photography is remarkably informative.
When examining the gesture of photography, this apparatic function becomes immediately
evident. This gesture can be described as a search for a viewpoint regarding the scene. And view-
points are places of giving-sense: of perspective. Viewpoints (Weltanschauungen/worldviews) do not
merely allow us to look on, but above all they act as a way for us to see through, which means: give

Vilm Flusser

sense to. The photographic gesture is the search for viewpoints, for ideologies: it is an ideological
Now, this search does not only take place as a function of the scene that is to be depicted, but
also as a function of the cameras design and as a function of the future viewer of the photograph,
the recipient of its message. This is not unintentional looking but looking that reflects the structure
of the apparatus, as well as the intention to create a photograph that is to be viewed by a recipient.
The message that will be carried by the photograph is, thus, not the reproduction of a certain scene
but a statement from a particular point of view onto a scene made with regard to particular
recipients and within the categories of a particular apparatus. It is thus a complex encoded message,
the decoding of which requires techno-imagination. Above all, it is necessary to clarify the apparatic
categories because they act as syntaxes for the symbols of the photograph: they are the grammar of
the photographic statement.
The photographers gesture as the search for a viewpoint onto a scene takes place within the
possibilities offered by the apparatus. The photographer moves within specific categories of space
and time regarding the scene: proximity and distance, bird- and worms-eye views, frontal- and
side-views, short or long exposures, etc. The Gestalt of spacetime surrounding the scene is prefig-
ured for the photographer by the categories of his camera. These categories are an a priori for him.
He must decide within them: he must press the trigger. His seeking gesture is not panning (like
that of the cinematic cameraman) but a quantity of jumps: he must jump from close up to far away,
from bird- to worms-eye view. His is not a doubtful gesture (like that of the movie cameraman)
but a decisive gesture. The photographer can, of course, dispose of a number of cameras, hence of
categorical contexts, thereby choosing the apparatus with categories that serve the purpose of his
intention. In a very specific sense of the word, he therefore transcends the photographic categories.
But he can only photograph as a function of photographic categories. He may manipulate these
(through filters, flashlights, etc.) but they remain categorical for him.
The question that is faced by techno-imagination is this: what are the photographic categories?
Which amounts to the question: according to which principles does the camera operate? The
answer demands a precise examination of each single camera; without such examination, a photo-
graphic message cannot be entirely deciphered. However, at this point it suffices to limit oneself to
general considerations. Cameras are simulations of eyes that make use of precise scientific knowl-
edge. The principles according to which cameras operate are the statements of particular branches
of science. Photographic categories are deductions from particular scientific theories belonging to
particular sciences (for instance those of chemistry and optics). In order to decipher photographs,
one must know the photographic categories, and in order to know them one must be acquainted
with primary scientific theories. Techno-imagination requires knowledge of the theories on which
apparatuses are based. The ideology the illusion that is inherent to photographs can only be

Towards a theory of techno-imagination

overcome through knowledge of those theories on which cameras are based. In general, the same
applies to all ideologies of all apparatuses.
The messages of techno-images are codified into symbols and the rules followed by this encod-
ing originate from scientific theories. This is where techno-images differ from traditional pictures. In
order to decipher the message of traditional pictures, one must be familiar with their producers
intention. In order to decipher the message of techno-images (for instance photographs), one must,
furthermore, know the scientific theories on which the apparatus they are produced by is based.
Traditional pictures are pre-scientific, whereas techno-images are post-scientific. Traditional picture-
codes are based on pre-scientific conventions, while those of techno-images rely, additionally, on
scientific conventions. Techno-imagination takes place on a different level of consciousness than
imagination in the old sense of the world.
Both traditional and techno-images are signs of scenes. This is how they differ from linear texts:
they are signs of processes. The messages of images (be those traditional or technical) are deciphered
by means of a gaze sweeping across a surface. The eye absorbs the symbols laid out on the surface,
one after the other: it analyses the message of the image. In other words: it diachronizes the
synchronically presented message. The messages of texts are deciphered by means of a gaze gliding
along the line. The message is received only once the gaze reaches the end of a linear structure. The
gaze gathers the symbols of the text that are unfolded linearly; it reads them. It synthesizes the
message. In other words: it synchronizes the diachronically presented message. Paraphrased, this
means that the universe of the meaning of images (be they traditional or technical) is scenic, and the
universe of textual meaning is processual. The two universes are entirely different, as are their
existential climates.
When linear writing was invented, it constituted a break with the scenic structure of the universe.
Up until this point, images primarily mediated between human and world. For this reason, the world
was experienced as a context for scenes in which imagination constituted the ability to orientate
oneself in the world: the ability to decode the meaning of images. Linear writing dismantled images
into lines (it developed surfaces into lines) and the world assumed a processual structure. Conception
was added to imagination as the ability to orientate oneself in the world. Conception is the ability to
decipher the clear and distinct symbols of texts (letters and numbers). The world was no longer
merely imaginable but also understandable. This is historical consciousness. History was invented
alongside linear writing. Historical consciousness is the awareness of readers and writers.
Over the course of history, a dialectic was mediating between image and text, as well as between
imagination and conception: images illustrated texts and texts described images. Imagination gave
conception a content, while conception explained imagination. This dialectic was reflected in social
and cultural life: as a struggle between a broad lower class that lived an analphabetic, pre-historical
life and a dominating class that lived an alphabetic, historical life. The lower class lived in a scenic

Vilm Flusser

world (magical, mystical, ritual), and the upper class in a processual world (dramatic, discursive,
progressive). The invention of letterpress printing and the introduction of compulsory education
have overcome this dialectic for the most part: at least western humanity as a whole has advanced
to historical consciousness.
When photography was invented, a new break occurred, this time within the processual struc-
ture of the universe. Photography and its successive techno-images signify a scenic world that
isbased on the processual structure of the world. Photographic categories rely on scientific theo-
ries and these theories are linear texts. Behind the scenes that photographs signify, the processes
presented by these theories can be recognized. Mankind, which receives the world as mediated by
techno-images (through photography, films, television, etc.), cannot be content with traditional
imagination if it intends to orientate itself in the world. It must develop a new ability, techno-
imagination, in order to avoid being disorientated in the world. It must develop a post-historical
consciousness if it wants to resist losing consciousness, as such, in face of the constant stream of
ideological techno-images to which it is exposed.
In photography (and in the techno-image as such), the dialectic between image and text ceases
to function. Texts do not explain these images as they used to do over the course of history; rather,
they precede them in the form of scientific theories and render them possible as such. In the exact
sense of the word, they constitute pre-texts for techno-images. Optical, chemical and other texts
empty into the camera; they virtually freeze within it and enable photographing, which means: to
signify scenes. History empties into the apparatus, freezes there and enables the apparatus to
programme scenes. The apparatus is history frozen, a retaining dam for processes, which is precisely
why it can programme scenes or stage programmes. The apparatus is history fulfilled (the fullness of
time): it is post-history. And techno-imagination is the ability to see through this in general terms,
as well as in each particular instance. It is the ability to live consciously in a post-historical world. A
theory of techno-imagination would be a theory of post-historical consciousness.
Chronologically, the photograph is the first techno-image. Since its invention, a whole range of
other techno-images have been created and more will undoubtedly be invented in the future.
Photography itself has developed remarkably: its astute gaze confronts us invariably and every-
where, from billboards and out of the pages of magazines. As the dominant mediator between
human and world, the unidimensional black on white of texts from the historical period gave way
long ago to the colourful surfaces of techno-images. The scenes that are signified by these images
programme our daily life to a large extent. For lack of a developed techno-imagination, we are inca-
pable of deciphering them. We accept them as if they were symptoms instead of symbols. This is
why they can programme us in the first place. However, if we could decipher them (like we read
texts), then we could see through them. The present is marked by our post-historical illiteracy. And
it is only thanks to this illiteracy that the camera can establish its programmed totalitarianism.

Towards a theory of techno-imagination

As the photograph constitutes the chronologically first techno-image, it is best suited for recog-
nizing the essence of techno-images. In a certain sense, and despite its development, the camera
has remained the most primitive of apparatuses. Compared to similar transformations by means of
more complex apparatuses, in photography it is relatively easy to observe the transformation of the
photographer from worker and observer to functionary of an apparatus. Moreover, photographs (for
instance, X-rays) are better suited to recognize the fact that techno-images are non-decipherable
without theoretical knowledge. This is why the critique of photography is of extraordinary
importance, not only for the realm of photography itself but also for our situation as a whole.
Translated from the German by Anna Wojtachno
Written in 1980, Fr eine Theorie der Techno-Imagination was first published in Andreas Mller-
Pohle (ed.), (1998), Standpunkte: Texte zur Fotografie, Edition Flusser, vol. VIII, Gttingen: European