The Codified World


Flusser, Vilem. ‘The Codified World’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 35-41

[originally published in 1978]


If we compare our situation with the one that existed before the Second World War, we are impressed by the relative colorlessness of the time before the war.
Our environment is filled with color, which, day and night, in public and in private, sometimes loud and sometimes quiet, demands our attention.
This explosion of colors means something. We are exposed to a constant stream of colors. We are programmed by colors. They are an aspect of the codified world in which we have to live.
Colors are the manner in which surfaces appear to us. Thus if a ignificant number of the messages programmed for us appear in color, it means that surfaces have become important as carriers of message. Walls, screens, paper surfaces, plastic, aluminium, glass, textiles, and so on have become important “media”.
The situation before the war was relatively colourless because at that time, surfaces played a smaller role in communication. Lines dominated: letters and numbers, which were ordered in rows.
[…] the current explosion in colors points to an increase in the importance of two-dimensional codes. Or vice-versa: one dimensional codes like the alphabet now begin losing importance.
It would be unfortunate if we wanted to think of our situation as a return to illiteracy. The images that program us are not really the kind that dominated before the invention of printing.
[…] premodern images are the products of skilled hand-workers (“works-of-art”), and postmodern images are the products of technology. One can recognize a scientific theory at work behind the programmed images, but the same is not necessarily true for the premodern images.
Premodern man lived in a world of images, which meant the “world”. We live in a world of images, which theories regarding the “world” hope to symbolize.
A code is a system of symbols. Its purpose is to make communication between people possible.

Because symbols are phenomena that replace (“stand for”) other symbols, comunication is a substitute: it replaces the experience of “that which it intends”.


People must make themselves understandable through codes, because they have lost direct contact with the meaning of symbols. Man is an “alienated” animal, who must create symbols and order them in codes  if he wants to bridge the gap between himself and the “world”. He must attempt to “mediate.” He must attempt to give the “world” meaning.

Whenever one discovers code, one can infer human presence. [Flusser describes stones and bear bones scattered around 2 million year old anthropoid skeletons] For these circles are codes, the bones and stones are symbols, and the anthropoid was a man. For he was “alienated” (insane) enough to have given the world a meaning. Although we have lost the key to these codes – we do not know what these circles mean – we know that we are dealing with codes: we recognize the meaning-giving intention, the “artistic” in them.

Later codes, such as cave drawings, can be deciphered with less effort – because we use similar codes.

Symbols that consist of two-dimensional codes, as is the case in Lascaux, signify the “world” in that they reduce the four-dimensional situations of time and space to scenes. In that they “imagine” them. Taken literally, “imagination” means: the ability to reduce the world of situations to scenes. And vice-versa: to decipher the scenes as substitutes for situations, to make “maps”and to read them – including the “maps” that designate desired situations, for example,a future hunt (Lascaux) or gadgets to be built (blueprints).

An image is a surface whose meaning is suspended in a moment: It “synchronizes” the situations that it represents as a scene. But, after this moment of suspension, the eye has to wander around the image, to receive its meaning as it is. It has to “diachonize synchronicity.” {Flusser provides a drawing as an example]

For people programmed by images, time flows through the world the way the eye wanders across the image: it diachronizes, it orders things into positions. It is the time of the return from day to night to day, of sowing to reaping to sowing, of birth to death to rebirth, and magic is the technique that is called for in this experience of time. It orders all things in the manner of which they relate to each other within the cycle of time.
The world, the world of images, the “imaginary world” thus codified, possesses the same form of being as that of our ancestors who were programmed and cultivated for untold centuries: for them, the “world” consisted of a bunch of “scenes” that demanded magical attunement.
And then we came to an eruption, a revolution with such violent consequences that we are still breathless when we consider the event that took place six thousand years ago.
[Flusser provides a drawing to illustrate the turn from drawing to writing]
The invention of writing consisted not so very much in the invention of new symbols, but rather in the unrolling of the image into rows (“lines”). We say that with this event prehistory ends and history in the true sense begins.
Texts are a development from images and their symbols do not directly signify something concrete, but rather images.
Texts are one step further away from concrete experience than images, and “conceptualizing” is an additional symptom of being one step further away than “imagining”.
If one wants to decipher (“read”) a text, one must let the eye glide along the line. Not until the end of the line does one receive the message, and then one must attempt to bring it together, to synthesize it.
Linear codes demand a synchronization of their diachronicity. They demand progressive reception. And the result is a new experience of time, that is,linear time, a stream of unstoppable progress, of dramatic unrepeatability, of framing: in short, history.
The dialectic between surface and line, between image and concept began as a battle, and it was not until later that texts sucked up images.
Our ignorance about the new codes is not surprising. After the invention of printing, centuries passed before writers learned that writing means storytelling. At first they only documented and described scenes.
It will take just as long before we comprehend the virtualities of techno-codes, before we learn what photography, filming,videomaking, or analog programming signifies.
It will take a long time before we achieve a posthistorical consciousness; but we recognize that we are close to taking the next decisive step, either stepping back from texts or all the way past them.
Writing is a step away from images, because it allows images to dissolve into concepts.
A photograph is not an image of the facts at hand, as was the case with the traditional image, but rather the image of a series of concepts, which the photographer has come up with in the scene that signifies the facts at hand.
Not only can the camera not exist without texts (for example, chemical formulas), but the photographer must first imagine, then understand, to be able to “techno-imagine.”
With this step backwards out of the text and into the techno-image, a new degree of alienation has been reached: the “belief in texts” – in explanations, in theories, in ideologies – is lost, because texts are now recognized as “mediations,” just as images were once upon a time.
The revolutionary originality of techno-images is not that they move themselves, that they are “audiovisual,” that they shine in light of the cathode ray, and so on, but they are “models,” the image of a concept of a scene.
That is a “crisis,” because the reaching beyond texts disempowers old programs, such as politics, philosophy, and science, but does not replace them with new programs.
There are no parallels in the past that allow us to learn how to use techno-codes, for example, when they manifest themselves as an explosion of colors. But we have to learn it; otherwise we are condemned to endure a meaningless existence in a techno-imaginary codified world that has become meaningless.

One Response to “The Codified World”

  1. 1 Desperate means for communication: Nietzsche | Suzanne van der Beek

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