To Abstract


Flusser, Vilém. ‘To Abstract’ Into the Universe of Technical Images trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) 5-10


Since human beings depend for their lives more on learned and less on genetic information than do other living things, the structure through which information is carried exerts a decisive influence on our lives.

When images supplant texts, we experience, perceive, and value the world and ourselves differently, no longer in a one-dimensional, linear, process-orientated way but rather in a two-dimensional way, as surface, context, scene.

What is currently happening is a mutation of our experiences, perceptions, values, and modes of behavior, a mutation of our being-in-the-world.

Linear texts have only occupied their dominant position as bearers of critically important information for about four thousand years. Only that time, then, can be called “history” in the exact sense of the word. Before that, during the forty-thousand-year period of so-called prehistory, other media – especially pictures – carried this information.


And so one is tempted to say that linear texts have played only an ephemeral role in the life of human beings, that “history” was just a diversion, and that we are now in the process of turning back to two-dimensionality, into the imaginary, magical, and mythical.


The present essay intends to show that this view is incorrect. it maintains that technical images are inherently different from early pictures, which will be referred to as “traditional”.

More specifically, technical images rely on texts from which they have come and, in fact, are not surfaces but mosaics assembled from particles. They are therefore not prehistoric structures but rather post-historical, without dimension. We are not turning back to a two-dimensional prehistory but rather emerging into a posthistorical, dimensionless state.

To support this contention, this chapter proposes a model [a ladder] to be used to clarify the difference in ontological position between traditional and technical images.

[1. Level of concrete experience (animals and primitive people)]

[2. Level of grasping and shaping (humans made tools and carved figures)]

[3. Level of two-dimensional mediation and imagination (traditional pictures, cave paintings drawn by Homo sapiens sapiens)]

[4. Level of mediation by linear texts (historical level of understanding and explanation, the Bible, Homer)]

[5. Level of technical images (while texts have become inaccessible/unclear)]


[The model] is meant to show that technical images are completely new media, even if they are in many respects reminiscent of traditional images. They “mean” in a completely different way from traditional images. In short, they actually constitute a cultural revolution.


[Longer summary of the five levels/steps]


Linear texts come into being as a result of this gesture called “grasping.” Grasping involves a translation from representations into concepts, an explanation of images, an unraveling of pictorial surfaces into lines. This gesture abstracts one dimension from pictorial surfaces, reducing the image to a linear one-dimensionality. The result is a conceptual universe of texts, calculations, narratives, and explanations, projections of an activity that is not magical.

Texts are concepts strung together like beads on an abacus, and the threads that order these concepts are rules, orthographic rules.

Both text and image are “mediations.”


The difference between traditional and technical images, then, would be this: the first are observations of objects, the second computations of concepts. The first arise through depiction, the second through a peculiar hallucinatory power that has lost its faith in rules. This essay will discuss that hallucinatory power.


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