By Anja Büchele, 27 August 2003

After emigrating from Prague in 1940, Vilem Flusser lived in Brazil for most of his life. The first of his work to be translated into English was that written between 1980-90. Perhaps as a result of his distance from Europe, Flusser’s theory of communication is largely untainted by the structuralist approaches of continental philosophy. Rather, his thinking starts from an existentialist position which holds communication to be ‘an artistic technique whose intention it is to make us forget the brutal meaninglessness of a life condemned to death.’

In Writings – a selection of Flusser’s essays from the ’80s – the then current (communicative) situation is described as ‘discursive’ not ‘dialogic’. Messages flowed from a sender toward many receivers. Information preceded discourse, which merely served the purpose of transmitting the former. Flusser contrasts this model with that of a ‘dialogic’ structure in which messages oscillate between various participants and partial information is synthesised into global information which is the outcome, rather than the precondition, of communication.

How this move beyond the critique of the image-producing apparatus to the realisation of a ‘celebratory’ dialogue (Flusser is heavily influenced by Martin Buber) was to come about, is contained in Flusser’s analysis of the technical image as a meta-text.

He describes how writing (which for him means the Latin alphabet), came into being as a reaction to the ‘inherent dialectic’ contained within the image; its tendency to replace, rather than represent the object. Through abstraction one could gain objective distance from the image, and regain a ‘sense of reality’. Relatedly, for Flusser historical consciousness came into being as a consequence of the written line, in that the message is only unveiled at the end of the sentence.

Where writing was an abstraction from the pre-historical image, the technical image is a critique of writing in that it concretises the written lines. Flusser maintains that the ‘post-historical’ image is not a technique of representation, rather one of projection: ‘Imaginal thought is becoming capable of thinking about concepts. It can transform a concept into its “object”, and can therefore become a metathought of conceptual thinking…in the form of surface images.’

According to Flusser we are in the process of moving from historical consciousness to a being-in-the-midst of- structures – something we do not yet understand since the discursive apparatus would have us believe that these new kinds of images are simply representations of facts. Therefore, a critical stance towards technical images is needed, moving beyond writing and the technical image in order to deideologise the current techniques of information distribution.

This is also the first step on the path to Flusser’s ‘humanised’ city, where we dialogically program our political and economic machines in order to live a life that transcends history: ‘It is not a matter of maintaining anything but of throwing everything into becoming. It is a matter of rejecting our present being human and of projecting everything into humanisation(s).’

Whilst Flusser’s utopian vision is indebted to a Judeo-Christian tradition of dialogue, his analysis of the technical image and his call for a new form of critique is unique. His trans-historical ideas, however, have yet to be programmed.

Writings // Vilem Flusser // University of Minnesota Press // April 2002 // hb 256 pp // ISBN: 0816635641

Anja Büchele <anja AT> is a writer, organiser of the club night Surp!u$ at Public Life, London, and plays in a band of the same name