Photographic Universe Photographic Magic (Vilém Flusser)


I find myself charmed once again by Vilém Flusser, about whom I have already posted here at JPP. Flusser was a Jewish refugee from Prague who fled to Brazil around World War II. Never before have I seen so much interesting stuff packed into something so slight as Towards a Philosophy of Photography.  This little book was published in 1983, two years prior to Into the Universe of Technical Images, another little book about which one can say the same.

In this book, the one on photography, the key concept is “the photographic universe.” Flusser defines it as “the one that surrounds us,” “a chance realization of a number of possibilities contained within camera programs which corresponds point for point to a specific situation in a combination game. As other programmed possibilities will be realized by chance in future [sic], the photographic universe is in a permanent state of flux and within it once photograph permanently displaces another.  Every given situation in the photographic universe corresponds to a ‘throw’ in the combination game, i.e. point for point, photograph for photograph” (p.69).

Flusser’s takes up a lachrymose position vis-à-vis this photographic universe. The photographic world we inhabit is redundant and automatic, mindless, functional, gaudy, and uncritical. In this world, what gets valued is the image, not “the thing,” etc. etc. One can forgive a text and its author his age if only because, at least in this case, so many more important things get said (cf. pp.51ff).

The technical, photographic images are driven by concepts and programs. The four basic concepts are “image,” “apparatus,” “program,” and “information.” These are said to contain, respectively, “magic,” “automation and play,” “chance and necessity,” “the symbolic and improbable” (p.76).

What this means, then, is that once again, in the book on photography, just like Into the Universe of Technical Images, there’s a lot of “primitive” religion, in this case magic.

An image is “created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on change, an image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion” (p.76) Or rather: “Image are surfaces above which eye circles…Apparatuses are playthings that repeat the same movements over and over again. Programs are games that combine the same elements over and over again. Pieces of information are improbable states that break away again and again” (p.77).

In other words, we have left the world of history and linear thinking and causal networks (p.77). Therein lies the suffusion of the photographic universe with “magical” connections, magic aligning in this view with function, play, and repetition. It’s magical connections we see in a photograph, the connections demanded by the apparatus and its program, not the world, and not history (p.60).

To turn the photographic universe into a theory of religion, to understand religion in terms of a photographic universe, one would identify the “image” with vision, “apparatus” with text and rite, “program” with ritual acts and canon, “information” with improbable doxa and systems of practice.

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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