Flusser, Vilém. “Image” pp.8-13 in Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2005)
Images signify – mainly – something ‘out there’ in space and time that they have to make comprehensible to us as abstractions (as reductions of the four dimensions of space and time to the two surface dimensions).
This specific ability to abstract surfaces out of space and time and to project them back into space and time is what is known as ‘imagination’. It is the precondition for the production and decoding of images. In other words: the ability to encode phenomena into two-dimensional symbols and to read these symbols.
The significance of the image as revealed in the process of scanning therefore represents a synthesis of two intentions: one manifested in the image and the other belonging to the observer. It follows that images are not ‘denotative’ (unambiguous) complexes of symbols (like numbers, for example) but ‘connotative’ (ambiguous) complexes of symbols: They provide space for interpretation.
The space and time peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences.
The magical nature of images must be taken into account when decoding them. Thus it is wrong to look for ‘frozen events’ in images.
Images are mediations between the world and human beings. Human beings ‘ex-ist’, i.e. the world is not immediately accessible to them and therefore images are needed to make it comprehensible.
However, as soon as this happens, images come between the world and human beings. They are supposed to be maps but they turn into screens: Instead of representing the world, they obscure it until human being’s lives finally beocme a function of the images they create.
Human beings cease to decode the images and instead project them, still encoded, into the worl ‘out there’, which meanwhile itself becomes like an image – a context of scenes, of states of things. This reversal of the function of the images can be called ‘idolatry’; we can observe the process at work in the present day: The technical images currently all around us are in the process of magically restructuring our ‘reality’ and turning it into a ‘global image scenario’.
Essentially this is a question of ‘amnesia’. Human beings forget they created the images in order to orientate themselves in the world. Since they are no longer able to decode them, their lives become a function of their own images: Imagination has turned into a hallucination.
This appears to have happened once before, in the course of the second millenium BC at the latest, when the alienation of human beings from their images reached critical proportions. For this very reason, some people tried to remember the original intention behind the images. They attempted to tear down the screens showing the image in order to clear a path into the world behind it. Their method was to tear the elements of the image (pixels) from the surface and arrange them into lines: they invented linear writing. They thus transcoded the circular time of magic into the linear time of history.
The struggle of writing against the image – historical consciousness against magic – runs through history. With writing, a new ability was born called ‘conceptual thinking’ which consisted of abstracting lines from surfaces, i.e. producing and decoding them.
Thus with the invention of writing, human beings took one step further back from the world. Texts do not signify the world, they signify the images they tear up. Hence to decode texts means to discover the images signified by them.
[Discussion of texts and images in religious and scientific matters]
Texts, originally a metacode of images, can themselves have images as a metacode.
Writing itself is a mediation – just like images – and is subject to the same internal dialectic. In this way, it is not only externally in conflict with images but is also torn apart by an internal conflict.
If it is the intention of writing to to mediate between human beings and their images, it can also obscure images instead of representing them and insinuate itself between human beings and their images.
If the texts, however, become incomprehensible as images, human beings’ lives become a function of their texts. There arises a state of ‘textolatry’ that is no less hallucinatory than idolatry. Examples of textolatry, of ‘faithfulness to the text’, are Christianity and Marxism. Texts are then projected into the world out there, and the world is experienced, known and evaluated as a function of these texts.
Textolatry reached a critical level in the nineteenth century. To be exact, with it history came to an end. History, in the precise meaning of the word, is a progressive transcoding of images into concepts, a progressive elucidation of ideas, a progressive disenchantment (taking the magic out of things), a progressive process of comprehension. If texts become incomprehensible, however, there is nothing left to explain, and history has come to an end.
During this crisis of texts, technical images were invented: in order to make texts comprehensible again, to put them under a magic spell – to overcome the crisis of history.