Mutations in Human Relations?
Vilém Flusser Edited by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes Foreword by N. Katherine Hayles



by N. Katherine Hayles

Writing in 2004, Sean Cubitt lamented the absence of Vilém Flusser’s books in English, likening it to a situation in which we would have only snippets of Marshall McLuhan or fragments of Walter Benjamin. Even in 2010, when Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images was published as part of the Electronic Mediations Series by the University of Minnesota Press, Mark Poster in his foreword decried the absence of media theory in the major theorists of deconstruction, including Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Judith Butler, an absence he hoped Flusser’s book would correct. Perhaps it is now safe to say that Flusser’s writings have emerged as a major locus for media theory within the English-speaking world. With Communicology: Mutations in Human Relations? translator Rodrigo Maltez Novaes, working with Stanford University Press, aims to bring into English Flusser’s original thesis on technical images and the technical imagination, the fountain from which flowed many of his later works, including Post-History (1979), Towards a Philosophy of Photography (1982), and The Universe of Technical Images (1983).

Flusser believes that humans are driven to communicate in a desperate search for meaning in the face of death’s inevitability. This text makes clear that for Flusser, communication is thus a matter of social relations. Technologies, from oral transmissions to manuscripts to print, help mediate the transmissions, but technology itself is not the primary force driving social and psychological change. Thus, he begins his discussion with sketches illustrating the different kinds of communication situations and the social relations they embody. The premise undergirding these sketches is scarcely original, although Flusser makes it more explicit than did many of the earlier theorists working along similar lines. The premise is this: the modes of communication that a society uses have profound effects on shaping the consciousness of its members, or as Flusser frequently puts it, media “program us.” We can locate similar ideas in the writings of Marshall McLuhan and, more recently, in the work of Bernard Stiegler, Mark Hansen, and Erich Hörl, among others. Moving much farther back in time, we may even see hints of it in Plato’s banishing of poets from his Republic because (as Eric Havelock has argued) he feared that the poetic emphasis on emotion and rhetoric would undermine the rationality he valued above all else.

For Flusser, a central implication is his crucial insight that we are on the cusp of leaving one kind of consciousness and entering another. Flusser emphasizes that the consciousness of modern people living today (or at least in 1978 when he wrote this work) has been formed by the ideologies of print, even as the modes associated with technical images erupt within our world through photography, TV, radio, and so forth. The inevitable results, he writes, are social crises and internal conflicts.

Print culture, he argues, is associated with linearity and its social correlates, including historical consciousness, rationality, temporal progress, and nationalism (because print culture facilitated the displacement of local dialects by the “paper languages” of English, French, German, etc.). That he puts technologies of print production in second place makes his work distinctively different from that of Friedrich Kittler, who in analyzing a similar shift from one kind of network discourse to another put primary emphasis on the technologies (this may explain why Kittler chose to downplay the significance of Flusser’s contribution, arguing that many books such as the Bible were not read in the linear order that Flusser associates with print texts).

What then are the communication modes characteristic of the new epoch, the technical image and the technical imagination? His most salient example of a technical image is the photograph, amplified in Towards a Philosophy of Photography. He contrasts the photograph with a painting, arguing that in one sense “photographs are more objective than paintings because the object impresses itself upon the surface, while in the painting there is a subject (the painter) who interferes in the image making.” In another sense, they are less objective because “the interference of the apparatus-operator complex [camera and photographer] is far more intricate than is the interference of the painter in the process of image making.” The passage may seem to suggest that his argument hinges on the presence of an apparatus-operator complex, but this would be a misreading: the main point is not how technical images are produced but rather “the meaning of the image.” In print media ecology, Flusser argues, an image means a scene, described in linear fashion and implying a temporality that progresses from past to future. However, in the ecology of technical images, an image means a concept. “Behind a painting stands a painter who tries to imagine a scene,” he writes. By contrast, “behind a photograph stands a text of optics, of chemistry, etc., a theory that tries to conceive a process.” A particularly clear example is an astronomer who takes a photograph of a star. The image, highly mediated through telescopes, filters, light-gathering apparatus, and so forth, means to the specialist a concept of a star and the processes it signifies; as an elite communicator, the scientist consciously recognizes this status. Similarly, TV and video images also mean concepts, although this implication is often obscured for nonspecialist viewers, who nevertheless unconsciously absorb the concepts through their “radiation” by mass media.

Since for Flusser the issue of meaning is central to the status of an image, it should come as no surprise that the force he sees propelling the transition from one media epoch to another is not so much technology (for example, the invention of the printing press) as a loss of meaning in a previous epoch’s modes of communication. He repeatedly proclaims his impatience with discussions that focus on which came first, a technology or a change of perceptions. For Flusser, Einstein’s theory of relativity did not, as Linda Henderson among others maintains, influence artists such as Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp; from Flusser’s point of view, one could just as easily argue that the fin-de-siècle artistic revolutions influenced Einstein. Such reasoning is apparent in this passage when he notes the post-historical entwinement of space and time. Flusser writes that in the new epoch, “the concept space can be imagined as a synchronization of time, and the concept time, as a diachronization of space.” This sounds very Einsteinian, but Flusser denies the obvious connection: “The scientific advance cannot be the cause of this type of technical imagination; on the contrary, it is the result of technical imagination. . . . Any question of precedence is, of course, nonsense. It is of no consequence whether modern humanity invented printing or printed books made modern humanity possible; or whether the Industrial Revolution introduced the public educational system or that system opened the field for the Industrial Revolution. The difference of formulation is a question of points of view on the same phenomenon and of a subsequent different use of terms.” Printing emerged not because movable type revolutionized print production, Flusser suggests, but because people had become overwhelmed by the plenitude of ritualistic practices associated with oral cultures. “People decided to explain images by texts and thus impoverish the meaning of images through clearness and distinction when meaning became intolerably compact. Conceptual thinking was, and is, the effort to save oneself from the cancerous growth of imagination.” Now a new transition is energized for a related but opposite reason: not an over-fullness of meaning but a lack of it. “We no longer even pretend to believe in theories, ideologies, discoveries, and progress, if we are honest. We are no longer as literate as they were [participants in print culture]. In our program, reason is again challenged by a different code, such as the one before printing was invented. But the challenge is a new one: no longer must we translate from image to letter but from letter to a new type of image.” In the transitions he traces, Flusser repeatedly emphasizes a kind of self-devouring logic that he claims is also true of our contemporary moment. The elite of primarily oral cultures, who knew how to write, “used the code of linear writing, which was to result in historical consciousness and historical action, as a method to sustain imaginary sacredness and a magical, ritual acting. It seems as if those early writers did not know what they were doing (that they were illiterate in spite of their technical skill in producing written texts), and certainly they had no inkling of the revolution they were provoking. In this, very probably, they were not unlike the present programmers.” They wanted to “freeze a form of existence rendered meaningless by a new form of communication,” and in this attempt to shore up something that was passing, they inadvertently accelerated its demise.

By analogy, our present programmers try to shore up our belief in texts by creating images that emerge from them, but in this endeavor they are inadvertently creating a new mode of communication—and of existence—that ironically has the effect of vaulting us out of linear, rational, historical consciousness and into technical imagination. If, as Mark Poster argued, the major theorists of deconstruction ignored media theory in general and Flusser in particular, Flusser for his part shows his disdain for the textual methods of deconstructive analysis. “The less one believes in texts, the more one criticizes them, and the more one criticizes them, the less one believes in them. The less one imagines what they mean, the less they mean, and the less they mean, the less one imagines their meaning. And this self-reinforcing circle must result in an involution of reason.” Thus, from Flusser’s perspective deconstruction itself can be seen as a symptom of a pending revolution already afoot, although its practitioners had little or no grasp of the nature and dynamics of what they were helping bring about.

It is not only the print era that is passing, Flusser argues, but writing in general. In Does Writing Have a Future? Flusser’s answer to the titular question is a definitive “no.” In our text he anticipates this later book in his remarks comparing traditional images to technical images. “Traditional images are mediations between humanity and the world. Technical images are mediations between humanity and texts. Traditional images imagine scenes and technical images imagine texts. Technical image codes mean texts; they are post-alphabetic, both in the sense that they no longer function like texts and in the sense that they could not have been invented without alphabetic writing.” Emerging from alphabetic writing and texts created by it, technical images at once render the prior epoch obsolete and inaugurate the new.

Flusser creates a sketch showing this relationship, which he describes as follows: “The sketch shows that the apparatus-operator complex is one that devours texts and spits out technical images, one that devours history and spits out post-history. History flows into the complex in the form of texts (scientific, political, and artistic discourses) and is there recodified into post-historical programs (amphitheatrically radiated films, posters, TV programs).” These “programs” are in the process of transforming the consciousness of us, the readers of Flusser’s text, who grew up with print but are now inundated daily by the technical images that slowly but surely are initiating us into the technical imagination. He sums up the process with this memorable aphorism: “The ultimate aim of history is to become a TV program.”

The irony of our situation, according to Flusser, is that even those who program us, ignorant of the implications of their actions, are also being programmed. “The producers are not fully aware of what they are doing,” he writes, “and the receivers do not want to know the meaning of their program. This is why technical images work as they do: toward totalitarian alienation.” Even the elite specialists, such as the astronomer who knows very well the meaning of his photographs as concepts, slip into unawareness when they turn over their products to the mass media (think Carl Sagan intoning, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be”). “How did technical images slip from the elite into mass communication?” Flusser asks. The answer, he maintains, is “now obvious.” “They were sucked into the apparatus-operator complex during the process of sucking in technical discourse. Cathode tubes became TV boxes, and photographs became posters, not because the scientists and the artists (the elite) handed them over to the manipulators of mass media but because the scientists and artists (the whole elite) were devoured by the apparatus and became operators. In other words, their own creature devoured them.” This passage illustrates that the “totalitarian” aspect that Flusser emphasizes is invariably linked with what he calls the “massification” of media. We might reasonably wonder, then, how relevant his analysis is today, more than four decades later when the media landscape has changed almost beyond recognition. Broadcast TV, Flusser’s usual target, has been largely replaced by the internet; movie theaters, which he likens to cathedrals and ritual spaces, have given way to streaming services; and the nightly news has been taken over by information (and misinformation) promulgated through social media.

To his credit, he anticipated some of these developments, although he failed to realize that they too could become programming media in their own right. Because these events work against “massification,” he was able to imagine them only as liberatory strategies. “No technical difficulties prevent the TV set becoming a two-way channel like a telephone,” he wrote as if channeling this possibility from the future. “And if thus changed, it would become a powerful tool for democracy and thus be far more revolutionary than are public meetings (let alone political elections). But such a change would require a new vision of politics, of decision-making, of action; it would involve the abandonment of concepts like nation or class, and it would involve the abandonment of the present, highly satisfactory use of television. It would require a technical imagination that nobody is willing and able to mobilize, neither those who manipulate current TV nor those who are its victims.” What he failed to envision is how, with the breakup of media “massification,” the public discourse on which democracy depends is now subject to alternative facts, conspiracy theories, and routine lies that try to transform actual events, which everyone saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears, were actually something else. In this respect, George Orwell is a more accurate prognosticator of our present situation than Flusser.

But Flusser was not entirely wrong, either. The problem, in Flusserian terms, is that the media transformations came about without an accompanying awareness of what the technical imagination could be in its utopian possibilities. Technical images, in this aspect, have the possibility to “consolidate a new level of consciousness and of existence, to create a new mode of communication and therefore a new society and a new human. In sum, the function of technical images is to serve technical imagination.” And it is by accepting and cultivating technical imagination that we might be able to escape from the horns of our dilemma, in which we are caught between the old codes that programmed us for print ideology and the new codes emerging from technical images.

This prospect cuts to the heart of Flusser’s intervention. “The purpose of this book,” he writes, is to enable us to see that technical imagination involves “a radical mutation of human relations, a radical change of the agreement between humans concerning the meaning of life in the world.” This kind of technical imagination would be “fully awake,” aware that an older order has passed away and a new order has arrived. “It is no easy decision,” he warns, “because although totalitarian apparatus are certainly a horrible prospect, so is the new human.” Accepting the transformation will involve realizing that the meanings of terms central to our way of life, from truth to objectivity to space and time to meaning itself, have changed into something we can now only vaguely grasp.

No doubt Flusser, in trying to limn the outline of these changes, has made many errors of interpretation and anticipation. Indeed, it would be miraculous if he were right in every instance; after all, he stands upon the same ground as we do, peering through the “fogs that surround us” into a still unknown future. But if he is correct enough—that is, if he is more or less accurate in describing the kind of transition that is occurring in human relations, understandings, and meanings—then this is an immensely important text with which we should all grapple. We are fortunate indeed to have this text now available to the English-speaking world to ponder, to agree and disagree with, and most important, to stimulate new conversations.

Works Cited

Cubitt, Sean. 2004. Review of The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design, and Towards a Philosophy of Photography, and Writings, and The Freedom of the Migrant: Objections to Nationalism. Leonardo 3, no. 5 (October): 403–5, esp. 403.

Flusser, Vilém. (1979) 2013. Post-History. Translated by Rodrigo Maltez Novaes. Reprint, Minneapolis: Univocal Publishing/University of Minnesota Press.

Flusser, Vilém. (1982) 2000. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Introduction by Hubertus Von Amelunxen. Translated by Anthony Matthews. Reprint, London: Reaktion Books.

Flusser, Vilém. (1983) 2011. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Translated by Nancy Ann Roth. Electronic Mediations Series. Reprint, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Flusser, Vilém. 2011. Does Writing Have a Future? Electronic Mediations Series. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hansen, Mark. 2015. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Havelock, Eric. 1963. Preface to Plato (History of the Greek Mind). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

Henderson, Linda. 1998. Duchamp in Context: Science and Technology in the Large Glass and Related Works. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Henderson, Linda. 2014. The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hörl, Erich, ed. 2017. General Ecology: The New Ecological Paradigm. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Kittler, Friedrich. 1990. Discourse Networks: 1800/1900. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kittler, Friedrich. 2001. “Perspective and the Book.” Grey Room 5:38–53.

McLuhan, Marshall. 1994. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Poster, Mark. 2011. “An Introduction to Vilém Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images and Does Writing Have a Future?” In Into the Universe of Technical Images, by Vilém Flusser, translated Nancy Ann Roth, Electronic Mediations Series, ix–xxvii. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Stiegler, Bernard. 2010. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.