Photo Magic Photo Criticism (Israel and Palestine in the Photographic Universe) (Vilém Flusser)


A Jewish refugee from Prague, media theorist Vilém Flusser is always full of a surprise or two for Jewish thought and philosophy. I posted earlier about his Into the Universe of Technical Images, which I found riddled with “Judaism” at very important intersections. And there’s this little bit about “Israel” and “Zionism” that I bumped into in Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Flusser’s comments are particularly germane. So much of how we come to understand the conflict in Israel and Palestine and the discourse about Zionism is very much mediated by photography and photographic-like images, and the moral, pseudo juridical, political judgments that automatically attend their distribution.

Flusser helps us to understand, however, that this mediation is, by necessity, riddled by the “magic” or “magical” thinking of the medium. He defines magic as “a form of existence corresponding to the eternal recurrence of the same” (84).  Namely, we take a picture, look at a picture, share a picture, and we respond to it, automatically, and yes, uncritically, even when we think we are being “critical.”

About Israel, Flusser is writing at the time of the first Lebanon War, in the 1980s, and his comment here relates to the marshaling of pictures to make sense of the war, politically, and he’s writing about this kind of discourse critically. That is to say, he wants to reject the magical and ritual way in which these images are marshaled and attended.

His description reminds me a lot about the kind of activism one finds about Israel on Facebook and other social media, both leftwing and rightwing also.

Like Flussser, I think there is what to be critical about here. “We do not react in a historical way to photographic documentation of the war in Lebanon, but with ritual magic. Cut out the photograph, send it on, screw it up –all these are ritual acts, reactions to the message of the image. This message has a peculiar background: One element gives significance to another and in return gets its own significance from it….Charged with this background, the surface of the image is ‘deified’: tanks are evil, children good, Beirut in flames is hell, doctors in white coats are angels” (p.61).

Flusser goes on to refer to those “Mysterious powers…circling overhead above the surface of the image, some of which carry names pregnant with value judgment: ‘imperialism,’ ‘Zionism,’ terrorism.’ Meanwhile most of them are without names, and they are the ones that give the photograph an indefinable atmosphere, lending it a certain fascination and programming us to act in a ritual fashion” (p.61)

The author is critical of all this, what he considers to be the uncritical tending to the surface of the image that operates without regard for “conceptual, explanatory thought” that takes us into the universe the “causes and consequences” of events like the first Lebanon War. To this, one could add other events, like 1948, or 1967, and the First Intifadah and Second Intifadah, the Second Lebanon War, the First Gaza War, and the second Gaza operation, or whatever it is you want to call it.

But I’m not sure. Yes, there is tendency to respond to these pictures in the way described by Flusser. There is a ritual-magic that attends the way we will so frequently bring moral judgment to the surface of images and to that hovering of conceptually and axiologically overloaded image-words like “Zionism,” “racism,” “Palestine,” “terrorism,” along with imputations of guilt and innocence. But for a conflict that has gone on so long, I’m not sure with Flusser that the long line of historical cause and consequence matters much anymore. I think it has lost its “meaning.”

For some critics and champions of either cause, pictures matter very much in a kind of one-sided way. But about Israel and Palestine, I would like to do without, or at least suspend and bracket the conceptual and axiological apparatus, because their usage tends to have the ritual-magic quality imputed to them by Flusser. The more one uses these terms, the more cynical one gets.

And then you get even more cynical the more you begin to see the magic and ritual that contributes to their formation in the photographic universe, particularly the photographic universe of Israel and Palestine. If it hasn’t done so already, our perception of the conflict is transforming itself into one picture on top of and next to another, which might mean that words like “Israel” and “Palestine” might not mean as much as their champions on either side of this or that partisan divide of this ugly little conflict tend to think.

The non-cynical conclusion that Flusser wants us to draw speaks to the possibility of criticism and photo-literacy. It’s a concept that comes up in After Photography, Fred Ritchin’s excellent book on digital images. For Flusser, “critical awareness” is that which allow one to bring a kind of transparency to the photographic universe. Photographs from the Lebanon War become “transparent” in relation to their “newspaper program and the program behind it belonging to the political party [or agenda] programming the newspaper…And the powers of ‘imperialism,’ ‘Zionism,’ and ‘terrorism’… are revealed as concepts contained within these programs” (pp.63-4).

This is not Frankfurt School photo criticism because Flusser rejects what he sees to be the resurrection of ghost and super-human spirits like “capitalism,” instead of assuming that  “programming proceeds in a mindless, automatic fashion.” The kind of criticism rejected by Flusser is the criticism that exorcises old ghosts only to create another magical circle populated by another group of ghosts and demons.

For him, the point is to break the magical circle of automatic picture taking and automatic picture dissemination. And that’s what a “philosophy of photography” is supposed to do, to “raise photographic practice to the level of consciousness,” to be more conscious of the interface between image-apparatus-program-information, to “play against the camera,” and to create unpredictable information” that will allow us to open up a space of freedom within the unfree, automatic worlds of photo-imaging, photo-ritual, and photo-magic, wherever it appears (81-2).

So much of Israel-Palestine picture taking and picture dissemination have this kind of automatic consistency as if programmed to create ready-made ritual-magical-political effects. Intended to enrage or inspire, they are completely predictable. I think we should demand better, more critical transparency, and something less automatic from the critics and partisans than more of the same. Or have I just banged up against the difference between art-photography versus documentary photography?

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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