Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Vilém Flusser

In this book by David Levi Strauss, I ran across some references to an essay by Flusser, an essay I had not read. At the time, I shrugged it off and took Levi Strauss' summary as correct, and moved on with my life. It happened that a few days later I realized that I do in fact possess of copy of "Towards A Philosophy of Photography" and so in due course I read it, and as one does, had a bit of a think.

Levi Strauss' summary seems to be perfectly fine, as far as it goes. He only wanted a few little things from the essay.

Flusser was definitely kind of a weird guy with some weird ideas, but there's stuff in here worth thinking about. The essay (book?) dates from 1984, so a bit later than Sontag and Barthes, but maybe a bit earlier than Stuart Hall.

A bureaucracy is a system made up of humans and processes which has one or more goals consciously held, often publicly stated. To some degree, invariably, a bureaucracy actually operates in opposition to its stated goals. Equally invariably, a bureaucracy operates to expand itself, its influence, its budget, and so on. A non-profit seeking to, say, solve the Problem of Homelessness will often operate in ways that on the one hand mitigate homelessness while at the same time perpetuating it, while simultaneously increasing its own budget to solve the ever worsening problem.

The non-profit argues that the problem is just getting worse, and their best efforts can merely slow the advance, send more money. Close examination of the actions of the non-profit are invariably ambiguous, and yet it often seems that they are perhaps not after all doing as much as they might be, except for the part where they ask for more money, a larger staff, and perhaps some more real estate which they are definitely on top of.

The underlying problems, at the same time, certainly are getting worse, so perhaps they're right after all. It's hard to tell.

This is more or less universal. Some bureaucracies do a better job of combating the natural tendency to expand at the expense of stated goals, and to operate in opposition to them; some others do a worse job. The natural tendency, though, is omnipresent.

The causes of this tendency are, as far as I know, largely unknown.

Flusser does not talk about bureaucracies as such, he's interested in what we might term a generalized form of this bureaucratic phenomenon. He's interested in systems of culture which operate according to programs which systems humans are largely unaware of, and against which humans struggle to some extent (but not always) in vain. His systems are obscure, he doesn't seem to have any notion of what form they take, or the mechanics of their operation, although he is sure that they do operate.

This is an alternative view to the Frankfurt School's Critical Theory which assumes (roughly) that all cultural systems are driven purely by power relationships. Flusser does not think it's that simple. While both schools believe in hidden systems that control everything, the Critical Theorists believe (roughly) that if you open the black box you will find a struggle for power between humans and/or human institutions. Flusser believes that inside the black box are only more black boxes.

Flusser also believes that there is a hierarchy, or perhaps a network, of these opaque cultural systems. If I become aware of the system I serve, and rebel against it, I am likely only rebelling against that system while my rebellion is in fact perfect compliance with the program of the larger surrounding system that programs and maintains the system I can see.

So, this is some serious tinfoil hat shit, right? And yet, bureaucracies are a thing, aren't they?

I don't actually have a clear sense of where I land on this. It feels kind of right, and kind of bonkers at the same time. But let us set my personal position aside.

Flusser believes that photography, broadly construed, is such a system. Photographs are produced by your free will, by accident and serendipity, by automated surveillance cameras, and so on. But just as a rolled die comes up 6 about one sixth of the time, you and your photographs considered en masse comply with the broader programmatic constraints of the system of photography. If you can somehow defy that system, if is only in conformity to larger systems you're even less aware of.

Flusser theorizes about the nature of the program driving the system of photography:

In the pre-History, ancient times, humans lived largely according to cycles of endless repetition. Day follows night follows day. Winter follows fall, summer, spring follows winter forever. The king dies; the king is crowned. Flusser terms this cyclical kind of existence "magical."

At some point linear writing and thence History are invented, and now everything that happens is new. It is not long merely that the king has died, and the king is crowned. This king has died, and now that king is crowned. The death of one causes the coronation of the other.

History led in the fullness of time to the Industrial Revolution which has in turn led us to now, a time of programmed cultural systems. The programmed goal of the system of photography is to enlarge itself, its influence, to make the picture universal, to replace text with picture, to return from text to picture, to, in the end, destroy History. The end result of photography is a return to the cyclical, magical, time, but in a new form.

In some sense, he's not wrong. News photographs do not make events distinct, they blur them together. One riot is just like any riot, it must be riot season come back around again. Successful struggles to make newsworthy events distinct, Historical, are rare. Photographs don't tell us which king is crowned, only that the king is crowned, and that the king has died. When Queen Elizabeth dies, we will see her funeral photos next to her father's funeral photos, and we will see the new king crowned next to photographs of her coronation, and they will all look the same.

Every photo on instagram is a repeat of another photo. The lattes, the sunsets, the pretty girls doing yoga, they all come around and around.

Notice here that this is the exact opposite of Barthes' position.

Barthes, recall, insists that the photograph makes Historical that which was formerly Religious, or Mythical. One might as well say Magical. Barthes places the era of Magic as ending more or less exactly at the time photography was invented, whereas Flusser places the end of Magic at the invention of linear writing; still, in broad strokes they seem to be talking about the same kinds of things. Barthes is probably thinking in terms of the French Peasant, a character that maybe somewhat fancifully is imagined to reside in a kind of utopian pre-history up through the Victorian era as far as I can tell. Flusser is thinking of humanity writ large, and probably urban, the humanity that toiled in factories and therefore confronted History rather more definitely than the shepherds.

I haven't any notion of who's right. I think both arguments have some weight to them, both feel right in some sense.

Barthes says that the photo testifies to facts, and is therefore part of the machinery of History, of linear time. Flusser says that the image, broadly construed, is inherently magical, cyclical, and therefore opposes History, linear writing, linear time.

They both kinda have a point.


  1. This is a pretty interesting character. He also did theories on homelessness, according to Wikipedia.

  2. Well there's that old context problem again. Pictures of riots or coronations that we see on the news are indeed just the usual stuff of our culture, interchangeable with other news cycle items. It's fun to liken it to the buzz that surrounded pre-literate humans. But each one of those pictures is a record of an Historical event, worth at least 10,000 printed words they say. The details are recorded there of that actual instant, if we care to look. The photo provides both magic and history, depending on what we want to do with it, or how we encounter it.

    1. This is a very well made point which I have been noodling on since you made it. Results of said noodling, um, perhaps forthcoming.

  3. Well this is both fucking brilliant, and germaine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoHCR8nshe8&t=522s

    I don't have a dog in this hunt, having read only a little of Sontag, and only none of Berger, but hmmm, "smart money"? I very much doubt anyone with a lick of sense would be betting on which one is more persuasive.

    Listen and learn, more like.

    1. She's just so still. It's creeping me out.

      (David is referring obliquely to a remark I made on Sontag vs. Berger, in which I stated that when they disagree, the smart money isn't on Sontag -- a statement I stand by. Berger is as a general rule a ferment of ideas, not all of them his own, some of them in fact Sontag's, whereas Sontag tends to be a blatherer, with rather more words than ideas. But lord she was so pretty, so sophisticated, so damn New York.)

    2. I watched part one yesterday, must try to finish it. I might even wind up agreeing with you!