Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Towards a Philosophy of Photography

Not my philosophy, but Vilem Flusser's (1920-1991). Steven Shaviro writes about it here.

One thing to say for him: Flusser takes photography very seriously. For him, two major events divide history: the first was the invention of writing (supplanting images); the second was the invention of photography (supplanting or beginning the process of supplanting writing). If you're writing a grant application to work on photography, and you need a citation which inflates the significance of your study, Flusser is your man. The stakes of photography are human freedom, in the largest possible sense.

That said, for Flusser, photography is important as a philosophical object mainly for the way it prototypes all similar apparatus, all means of "technical image" making. A result being that Flusser is unconcerned with images themselves, with photographic iconography, with any particular image-makers. He does, however, cleave photographs into two qualitative ur-categories: 1. photographs which produce no new information, which are redundant and endlessly reproduced—snapshots are his primary example here, although he also recognises documentary and journalistic photography as of this type; 2. photographs which attempt to produce new information, which try to exceed a camera's program, the technical codes which dictate what an image can be and do—here, he cites something he calls "experimental photography" but gives no better sense of what practices this might reference. Snapshots, Flusser asserts at least twice, are not of interest to his study (although he talks about them persistently). Informational photographs, on the other hand, are of interest because in their attempts to exceed the apparatus' program, they strive to free human intention from "automaticity." He reserves the valorised term "photographer" for those who practice experimental photography. The rest of us are "idolaters."

Obviously, hasty summary does Flusser few favours. I'm finding it impossible to avoid a tone of mockery here, when that's not at all my aim or what, ultimately, I think Flusser deserves. It's an 80-page book, terse, neologistic, and entirely without citation. After the first half of the book, I was ready to write him off as someone who believed many things that I could or would not: that technology can and does ruthlessly determine human action, that the bulk of cultural production is nugatory and the majority of cultural producers are deeply self-deluded, and that the "matter of the world" is separable from the symbolic registers of the world (e.g. photography) such that one can dominate the other in particular historical moments. I wasn't sure I could have any sort of productive dialogue with Flusser's work. But the second half...well, it's not that it gets suddenly more nuanced and interesting; rather, his accretive prose style arrives someplace unexpected.

Flusser's is a doggedly, programmatically pessimistic view of photography. But his philosophy of photography, as he outlines it, is a liberational project. What a strange vision. It seems very worth a reckoning, if only for its complications and the resistances I want, instinctually, to erect against it. [in other words, I'm giving up on this post. I had bigger plans for it, but there are always more posts, and it was offending me, sitting there all misshapen and gangly in my draft folder.]

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