The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object

09Apr12

Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’ Leonardo, 19:4, 329-332, 1986

p.329

The Latin term ‘objectum’ and its Greek equivalent ‘problema’ mean ‘thrown against’, which implies that there is something against which the object is thrown: a ‘subject’. As subjects, we face a universe of objects, of problems, which are somehow hurled against us. This opposition is dynamic. The objects approach the subject, they come from the future into the subject’s presence.

The shock between subject and object occurs over the abyss of alienation which separates the two. The present tendency is to relegate this shock from human subjects to automatic apparatus. Automatic cameras may serve as an example.

Understanding has to do with the eyes; the Greeks called this gaze which makes the data stand still ‘theoria’. Conception has to do with hands and fingers; the Greeks called this kind of gesture ‘praxis’. They felt a contradiction between theoretical understanding and practical action.

The fifteenth century established a dialectic between theory and praxis. One began to look in order to grasp better, and to grasp in order to see better. Modem science was born.

The eighteenth century used modern science to analyse work into two elements: one concerned the shape to be imposed on data, the other the gesture of that imposition. This resulted in machines and machine tools: the industrial revolution.

Out comes a new type of cultural object, the industrial object. This has had profound consequences: artisans and artists became marginalized,and society became divided into owners of machines and machine tools, makers of machines and machine tools and servants of machines and machine tools.

Industrial objects differ from pre-industrial ones in two aspects. First, they are more numerous-machines, being more rapid than humans, produce more objects than humans do; the result was object inflation, a devaluation of cultural objects. Second, they are stereotypical – the same tool impresses the same shape on a series of objects; the result was that cultural objects became equivalent to each other. This progressive devaluation of and indifference toward cultural objects is called ‘mass culture’.

As cultural objects became  increasingly  cheaper,  and  machines  and  tools  increasingly more expensive, one tended to  believe that those who owned the machines and the tools held the power of decision. This belief is one of the roots of Marxism. But as it became evident that ‘shape’ and ‘value’ are  synonymous,  that  it  is  the  toolmakers who shape the future of  society, this belief shifted. It is now the toolmakers (‘information programmers’) who  are believed to hold  the  power of decision.

p.330

The information the photo carries sits on its surface and not within its body, as in the case of shoes or fountain pens.

Though this would seem to be true for all pictures, it is not. Pre-industrial pictures are valuable as objects because one loses the information they carry if one destroys their body, just as with shoes or fountain pens. Photos are worthless as objects because the information they carry is stored elsewhere and may be transferred easily from one worthless surface to another.

A post-industrial object is objectively worthless and carries information that can be replicated and information that has been elaborated by an automated apparatus. Thus, if we are to grasp the photo (and post-industrial culture in general), we must concentrate upon the camera (and the apparatus in general).

The universe of given objects (‘nature’) tends toward a progressive loss of information. It tends toward an ever more probable distribution of the elements which compose it. Culture is a store of improbable situations which humankind opposes against this mindless natural tendency toward loss of information, toward ‘thermic death’, toward oblivion.

This is why information is synonymous with value. However, if apparatus can create information in the place of humankind, what about human commitment? What about values?

In  order to restate the  above  philosophical  problem,  one  may  distinguish  between  three  types  of  photos:  photos  made by fully automated cameras  (e.g. a  photo  made  from  a  NASA  satellite),  amateur  photos  (e.g.  a  photo  of  the  photographer’s  dog  in  front  of  the  Duomo  Cathedral  in  Florence)  and  professional photos (e.g. an experimental  photo). The first  type carries information  programmed by humans and elaborated  by  apparatus.  The  third  type  carries  information  intended  by  the  photographer,  and  this  intention  may  be  opposed  to the one that programmed  the  apparatus.  It  is  the second  and  by  far  most  frequent type of photo which is of  interest here.

The amateur photographs everything the camera can photograph and tries to exhaust the camera program. As a result, the information these photos carry has not in fact been intended either by the amateur or by the camera programmer; they were mere virtualities within the camera program, which became real through an automatic releasing gesture.

Snapshots carry little information.They are probable. But some of them are highly informative, difficult to futurize; and for a curious reason: they are bad photos. They owe their information to an error, to a deviation from the camera program.

We are familiar with this sort of information that results from error. New biological species arise through errors in the transmission of the genetic program.

An apparatus that has escaped from human intention, realizes all its virtualities automatically and deviates from its program by error, works like nature. This implies that a society dominated by uncontrolled apparatus will be thrown back into the terror of blind, absurd automaticity, into a pre-cultural situation.

The challenge is to control the apparatus. This is shown in the third type of photo. When the experimental photographer deviates from the camera program, it is done intentionally, not by error. But the problem remains that despite the intention to deviate from the program, the photographer can only photograph what is contained as a virtuality in the camera program.

p.331

Photos are about to emigrate from their material support into the electro-magnetic field, to abandon their chemistry: they will no longer be seen on paper but on screens. This is a technical revolution, and basically all cultural revolutions have a technical basis.

The new photo can be distinguished from a chemical one in three ways: (1) It is practically eternal; it is not subject to entropy, to the second principle of thermodynamics. (2) It can move and sound. (3) It can be changed by its receiver.

(1) Memory

Objects are bad memories: paper falls into ashes, buildings into ruin, entire civilisations into oblivion. Humans are committed to preserving the information they create; they are committed to struggle against entropy, against oblivion.

The new photos may be stored in this kind of memory. [silicon-based]

(2) Total art

Ever since the fifteenth century, Occidental civilisation has suffered from the divorce into two cultures: science and its techniques – the ‘true’ and the ‘good for something’ – on the one hand; the arts – beauty – on the other. This is a pernicious distinction. Every scientific proposition and every technical gadget has an aesthetic quality, just as every work of art has an epistemological and political quality. More significantly, there is no basic distinction between scientific and artistic research: both are fictions in the quest of truth (scientific hypotheses being fictions). Electromagnetized images do away with this divorce because they are the result of science and are at the service of the imagination.

Thus the new photo not only does away with the traditional classification of the various arts (it is painting, music, literature, dance and theatre all rolled into one), but it also does away with the distinction between the ‘two cultures’ (it is both art and science).

(3) Dialogue

Totalitarian society is discoursive: it emits information, like the daily press or the television system. Democratic society is dialogical: it permits the exchange of information, like the telephone. Both forms overlap at present, but discourse dominates. The new photo will change that. Cables and other reversible channels will carry information both ways. The new photo may be changed by its receiver to be sent back, thus changed, to the sender. Everybody will become capable of collaborating in the elaboration of information (within the limits imposed by automation). Democracy has become technically possible for the first time since the industrial revolution.

[Discussing the exhibition les Immatereux]

There was no object present, just immaterial information. From the point of view of industrial culture, all this was entirely useless. It cannot be consumed, only contemplated. If in the future people concentrate upon producing such useless information and relegate the production of useful objects to automatic machines and artificial intelligences, then we shall have a useless culture.

But if one changes one’s point of view, the exhibition suggests that it is precisely this uselessness of pure information that will permit humankind to lead a meaningful life for the first time.

Thanks to the automatic machines, humankind is becoming unemployed and thus free to pursue the useless dialogical elaboration of pure information. This, of course, is called ‘play’ […]

The future culture of immaterial information, as exemplified by the new photo, will hold objects in contempt: it will consume them without paying any attention to them. In this sense, the human being will no longer be subject to objects. No longer facing the universe of objects,the individual instead will be linked,through numerous channels, with other people, and together they will exchange information. One may call this sort of existence ‘intersubjective’, to distinguish it from subjective existence.

The new photo is thus an example of the emerging culture of immaterial information. All useful activities will be executed by apparatus. The individual will become free to elaborate pure information in dialogue with all the others. This information will be stored in un-perishable memories. It will be total art, and every human being will become, potentially, a universal artist. The human being will no longer exist as subject to an objective universe but as a knot within a social network which transcends space-time. This is, of course, utopian.

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