Cyborg Religion In The Universe of “Technical Images” (Vilém Flusser)

This one was recommended to me by a dear and trusted friend. There’s a lot that’s dated in this 1985 text, just recently translated. But there’s a lot to work with. You’ll note the plethora of what have since come to be clichés in new media discourse. There’s nothing new here. The world of “technical images” is supposed to be groundless and dimensionless, a world of surfaces in which art is better than truth, an ecstatic utopian place in which history and linearity and the text have finally been overcome in the always present surge of information, the rejection of bodies and all things physical. What I liked least about the book was its forward moving teleology, whereas the media theorists I like the most are very keen on watching a more nuanced interconnection between new media and old media. What most surprised me about Flusser was the religious orientation, a peculiar mix of Buddhism, Buber, Shabbat, and Schopenhauer, the denial of death and life lived in relation before the absolute.

The chapter outline reflects the giddy, wide-ranging promise of this text.

To enter into this, our brave new world is to:



–make concrete
















I found very interesting the what for me was the sudden and unexpected introduction of religion into the discussion –transcending physical reality in the play of illusion and the suspension of place, time, and suffering. A lot of these discussions are built upon philosophical clichés from the history of religions circa mid-century. About Buddhism, Flusser seems not to know too much, and the discussion of Shabbat seems cribbed from Heschel. But I like the willingness to play around with religion here, understanding that one would need to amend each specific claim made by Flusser about this or that tradition.

Re: religion in this text, there are interesting things with which to work.

For instance:

–Buddhism: Flusser claims that science and technology “have, on one hand, eroded the objective world around us into nothingness, and, on the other, is bathed in a world of illusion. And so it looks as though our historical development in the West has reached a final stage that does not look significantly different from a Buddhist worldview” a veil of Maya surrounds the yawning nothingness of nirvana. From this standpoint, the powerful stream of Western history is about to empty into the timeless Orient” (pp.38-9, emp. added).

–Shabbat. Flusser writes, “The Sabbath…is a space held above and apart from the flow of events, a temple not of marble but of time…The Sabbath itself…has no goal, no motive, no intention, for it is itself the goal, the motive…Only when leisure and celebration meet, when the academy blends with the Sabbath, when space and time are mutually suspended could it be said that Western tradition has reached completion. This is the religious aspect of telematics” (p.151, emp. added).

— “The Absolute Other” as mediated through relation with other people, which “breaks open the shell that encapsulates me, what is uniquely mine, what I possess, leaving an open view of what is absolutely other. ‘I’ then becomes something that is the other of the absolute other…A new, completely unorthodox religiosity is beginning to emerge from the musty corners of our consciousness, in the form of the dreamlike universe of technical images.” (pp.155-7, emp. added)

The philosophical lodestars here are Buber and Schopenhauer. The redeemed world of technical images is a dialogical one in which human beings enter into interpersonal relations, not with images, but with other people via images. It is a world that moves out of the “representations” of unhappy consciousness (all consciousness is unhappy) to a musical world of pure will.

So the takeaway is this. There is religion in the age of new media, and this mélange of Buddhism and philosophical Judaism is what it looks like. It’s aestehtic. Among other things, religion in “the universe of technical images” is abstract, imaginary, concrete, tactile, visionary, semiotic, interactive, scattered, paedeic, conversational, and playful. In Jewish philosophy and continental theory of religion, there has been little interest paid to the phenomena of images and “illusion.” The age of new media pushes us into that direction. About this, Flusser writes that “our illusions are not things we should abandon to fall into nirvana but rather are, quite the opposite, our answer to the yawning nothingness that threatens us…Our veil is not to be torn but rather woven more and more closely (p.39, emph added).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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