Line and Surface


Flusser, Vilem. ‘Line and Surface’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 21-34

[originally published in 1973]


Surfaces are becoming ever more important in our surroundings. For instance, TV screens, posters, the pages of illustrated magazines.

Photographs, paintings, carpets, vitreaux, cave paintings surrounded men in the past, but these surfaces did not offer themselves either in the quantity or with the degree of importantce of the surfaces that now surround us.

Ever since the “invention” of alphabetical writing (that is, ever since Western thought began the articulate itself), written lines surrounded men in a way that demanded explanation.

Western thought is “historical” in the sense that it conceives the world in lines, therefore in process. It can be no accident that historical feeling was first articulated by the Jews – the people of the book, that is, of linear writing. But let us not exaggerate: only a very few knew how to read and write, and the illiterate masses distrusted (and pour cause) the linear historicity of the scribes and clerks who manipulated the civilization.


The invention of the printing press vulgarized the alphabet, however, and it may be said that during the last hundred years or so the linear historical consciousness of Western man has formed the climate of our civilization.


The problem is to find out what adequation there is between the surfaces and the world on one hand, and between  the surface and the lines on the other.

What is the difference between reading written lines and reading a picture?

The difference seems to be that in reading lines we follow a structure imposed upon us, whereas in reading pictures we move rather freely within a structure that has been proposed to us.


We may in fact read pictures in the way described, but we need not necessarily do so. We may seize the totality of the picture at a glance, so to speak, and then proceed to analyze it by means of the above-mentioned pathways.


In fact, this double method  – synthesis followed by analysis (a process that may be repeated several times in the course of a single reading) – is what characterizes the reading of pictures.

This gives us the following difference between reading written lines and pictures: we must follow the written text if we want to get at its message, but in pictures we may get the message first, and then try to decompose it.

And this points to the difference between the one-dimensional line and the two-dimensional surface: the one aims at getting somewhere; the other is there already, but may reveal how it got there. The difference is one of temporality, and involves the present, the past, and the future.

If, then, we call the time involved in reading written lines “historical time,” we ought to call the time involved in reading pictures by a different name, because “history” has the sense of going somewhere, whereas, while reading pictures, we need go nowhere. The proof of this is simple: it takes many more minutes to describe what one has seen in a picture than it does to see it.


[discussion of reading films]

How we read films can best be described by trying to enumerate the various levels of time in which the reading goes on. There is the linear times in which the pictures of scenes follow one another. There is the time in which each picture moves. There is the time it takes for us to read each picture (which is similar to, though shorter than, the time involved in reading paintings). There is the time that is meant by the story the film is telling. And, very probably, there are other, even more complex, time levels.

[…] the reading of films goes on in the same “historical time” in which the reading of written lines occurs, but the “historical time” itself occurs, within the reading of films, on a new and different level.


Now, if by history we mean a project toward something, it becomes obvious that “history” as embodied in reading written texts means something quite different from what it means in reading films.


This radical change in the meaning of the word history has not yet become obvious, for a simple reason: we have not yet learned how to read films and TV programs. We still read them as if they were written lines, and fail to grasp their inherent surface quality.

But this situation will change in the very near future. It is even now technically possible to project films and TV programs that allow the reader to control and manipulate the sequence of the pictures, and to superimpose other pictures upon them.

In consequence, the “history” of a film will be something that is partly devised or manipulated by the reader.

Now, these developments imply a radically new meaning of the term historical freedom. For those who think in written lines, the term means the possibility of acting upon history from without. This is so because those who think in written lines stand within history, and those who think in films look at it from without.

The preceding considerations have not taken into account the fact that films are “talking” pictures.

Visually, films are surfaces, but to the ear they are spatial. We are merged in the ocean of sound and it penetrates us; we are opposed to the world of images, and it merely surrounds us.

This third dimension [sound], which drives a wedge into the surface reading of films, is a challenge to those who think in surfaces; only the future can show what will come of this.

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