Redundant Photographs: Cameras, Software and Human Obsolescence

Daniel Palmer, ‘Redundant Photographs: Cameras, Software and Human Obsolescence’, pp.47-65, in:

Rubenstein, D., Golding, J., Fisher, A., 2013. On the verge of photography: imaging beyond representation. Article Press, Birmingham, UK.


The history of photography is also a history of automation.


Needless to say, the primary aim of automation is to reduce human labour time (related to a secondary aim of removing human error). Indeed, certain kinds of cameras today – such as those designed to identify car number plates – need no regular human operator at all.

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The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object

Vilém Flusser. ‘The Photograph as Post-Industrial Object: An Essay on the Ontological Standing of Photographs’ Leonardo, 19:4, 329-332, 1986


The Latin term ‘objectum’ and its Greek equivalent ‘problema’ mean ‘thrown against’, which implies that there is something against which the object is thrown: a ‘subject’. As subjects, we face a universe of objects, of problems, which are somehow hurled against us. This opposition is dynamic. The objects approach the subject, they come from the future into the subject’s presence.

The shock between subject and object occurs over the abyss of alienation which separates the two. The present tendency is to relegate this shock from human subjects to automatic apparatus. Automatic cameras may serve as an example.

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Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)

Vilém Flusser, “Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)”, pp.10-18, in:
Flusser, V., 2014. Gestures. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
During its first phase (antiquity and the Middle Ages), history emphasizes the way the world should be; that is, people work to realize a value—ethical, political, religious, practical, in short, “in good faith.”
During its second phase (modernity), it emphasizes the discovery of being in the world; that is, people work epistemologically, scientifically, experimentally, and theoretically, in short, “without faith.”

Continue reading “Beyond Machines (but Still within the Phenomenology of Gestures)”


Vilém Flusser, ‘Fingers’, pp.57-63, in:
Flusser, V., Zielinski, S., Baitello, N., Novaes, R.M., 2013 [1979]. Natural:mind. Univocal, Minneapolis, MN.


I am sitting on a chair. The chair is a product of Western civilization and if it were to be analysed it would reveal the history of the West.

The juxtaposition “chair – desk” is a characteristic structure of particular situations of my culture.


This is a slight paleo-technological writing instrument (a product of the beginning of the 20th century). The machine has keys inscribed with letters of the Latin alphabet.

My fingers hit the keys in a particular order. This order is therefore determined by the specific order of such a language.

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The Spinning Index

Adam Brown, ‘The Spinning Index: architectural images and the reversal of causality’, pp.237-258, in:

Rubenstein, D., Golding, J., Fisher, A., 2013. On the verge of photography: imaging beyond representation. Article Press, Birmingham, UK.


It can be claimed that the digital revolution represents the final cutting loose of the mechanisms of production and distribution from local and social circumstances.

Virgilio’s argument, in Speed and Politics, is that it is precisely this speed which separates producer from consumer: digital practices accelerate the movement of capital and commodity beyond the speed of critique.

Speed, of course, is a vector function which can be defined as movement through space over time. For Virilio, ‘the speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world’. Extrapolating Virilio’s thesis, it is possible to claim that, in certain key circumstances, time can be said to move backwards, as if it is the pixel, not the quantum particle which possesses the ability to move faster than the speed of light.

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The Camera That Ate Itself

Matthew Fuller, ‘The Camera That Ate Itself’, 55-85 in:

Fuller, M., 2007. Media ecologies: materialist energies in art and technoculture, 1st MIT Press paperback edition. ed, Leonardo. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England.


This persistent whimsy that labor-saving technology will of itself release people into a helter-skelter world of self-determined fun is less a theory than a suburban myth.

Nevertheless, Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography insists we play along. Having been liberated from the necessity, if not from the compulsion, to work, people are available for play.

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Towards a General Theory of Gestures

Vilém Flusser, Gestures, trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

‘Towards a General Theory of Gestures’ pp.161-176


Gesture can be seen as a kind of movement.

What separates gestures defined in this way from other movements is their epistemological overdetermination.

When I lift my arm, I can explain the movement perfectly well as the result of a force vector affecting the arm from the outside.

The arm movement involves physiological, psychological, cultural, economic, and other factors in equal measure for example.

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Exile and Creativity

Flusser, Vilem. ‘Exile and Creativity’ Writings translated by Andreas Ströhl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002) 104-109 [1984]


In exile, everything is unusual. Exile is an ocean of chaotic information.

In it the lack of redundancy does not allow the flood of information to be received as meaningful messages. Because it is unusual, exile is unlivable. One must transform the information whizzing around into meaningful messages to make it livable. One must “process” the data. It is a question of survival: if one fails to transform the data, one is engulfed by the waves of exile. Data transformation is a synonym for creation. The expelled must be creative if he does not want to go to the dogs.

[Flusser’s hypothesis] proposes a positive assessment of expulsion.


For it seems – according to this hypothesis – that those people who want to “help” the expelled to become ordinary again are, in fact, engaged in reeling him back into their ordinariness. This is an informative assumption, because it forces us to think about what is usual.

The assumption does not justify the expellers, but rather, it exposes the vulgarity of the expellers: the expelled were bothersome factors who were expelled to make the surroundings even more ordinary than before. Indeed, this assumption leaves the following question to our discretion: Even without intending to do so, have the expellers not done to expelled a service?

I use the word expelled  rather than refugees or emigrantsto bring the totality of the problem before our eyes.

We find ourselves in a period of expulsion. If one values this situation positively, the future will appear a little less dark.

This essay has been written by one who has been expelled not only many times, but also in a number of different ways. Thus, it comes from one who knows the suffering that characterizes every form of exile. Also, the shadow that this sort of suffering casts and for which the German language has coined the word Heimweh (“homesickness”). Nevertheless – or perhaps out of spite – this essay will praise expulsion.

Habit is like a cotton blanket. It covers up all the sharp edges, and it dampens all noises. It is unaesthetic (from aisthesthai – perception), because it prevents bits of information from being perceived, as edges or noises. Because habit screens perceptions, because it anaesthetizes, it is considered comfortable. As comfy. Habit makes everything nice and quiet.

Every comfortable surrounding is pretty, and this prettiness is one of the sources of love for the fatherland. (Which, indeed, confuses prettiness with beauty.)

If the cotton blanket of habit is pulled back, one discovers things. Everything becomes unusual, monstrous, in the true sense of the world un-settling. To understand this it is quite enough to look at one’s right hand with all its finger movements from the perspective of a Martian: an octupus-like monstrosity.

The Greeks called this “discovering” of the covered up aletheia, a word that we translate as “truth.”

It is not as if we could actually be expelled from our right hand, unless of course, we let it be amputated. Thus, when we discover how monstrous our bodily condition is, it is owning to our strange ability to expel our body from our thoughts.


An exile as radical as this cannot be maintained for long: we are overcome with an irresistible homesickness for our own beautiful bodies, and we reimmigrate.


Yet, this example of an extreme form of exile is instructive: For the expelled, it is almost as if he has been expelled from his own body. As if he was out of his mind. Even the usual things that he takes into exile are creepy. Everything around him becomes sharp and noisy. He is driven to discovery, to truth.

In habit, only change is perceived; in exile, everything is perceived as if in the process of change.

In exile, where the blanket of habit has been pulled back, he becomes a revolutionary, if only because it enables him to live there. Thus, the suspicion that confronts the expelled in his New Land is completely justified. His advent in the New Land breaks with the usual and threatens its prettiness.


The expelled are uprooted people who attempt to uproot everything around themselves, to establish roots. They do it spontaneously, simply because they are expelled.

Perhaps one can observe it when one tries to transplant trees. It can happen that the expelled becomes conscious of the vegetable, almost vegetative aspect of his exile; that he uncovers that the human being is not a tree; and that perhaps human dignity consists in not having roots – that a man first becomes a human being when he hacks of the vegetable roots that bind him. In German, there is the hateful word Luftmensch, a careless “man with his head in the air.” The expelled may discover that air and spirit are closely related terms and that therefore  Luftmensch essentially signifies human being.

This sort of discovery is a dialectical change in the relationship between expelled and expeller. Before this discovery, the expeller is the active pole and the expelled is the passive pole. After this discovery, the expeller is the victim and the expelled is the perpetrator.

This is the discovery that history is made by the expelled, not the expellers. The Jews are not part of Nazi history, the Nazis are part of Jewish history. The grandparents are not part of our biography; the grandchildren are part of our biography. We are not part of the history of automatic apparatuses; the apparatuses are part of our history.

And, the more radically the Nazis, the grandchildren and the apparatuses have driven us into exile, the more we make history: the better we transcend.

But this is not the decisive part of the discovery that we are not trees – that the uprooted make history. Instead, the decisive part of it is to discover how tiresome it is not to establish new roots.

After all, habit is merely a cotton blanket that covers up everything. It is also a mud bath where it is nice to wallow. Homesickness is a nostalgie de la boue, and one can make oneself comfortable anywhere, even in exile.

The discovery that we are not trees challenges the expelled to struggle constantly against the seduction pleasures of the mud bath. To continue to experience expulsion, which is to say: to allow oneself to be expelled again and again.


The discovery of human dignity as uprootedness seems to reduce one’s freedom to the mere right to come and go as one pleases. The right of the spirit to drift from one place to another.

But, in reality, the question of freedom leads us to the question: Is it possible to allow oneself to want to be driven? Is there not a contradiction between “allowing” and “wanting”?

Thus, the question of freedom is not the question of coming and going, but rather of remaining a stranger. Different from others.

[…] the production of new information (creating) depends on the synthesis of previous information. Such a synthesis consists in the exchange of information, just as it might be stored in one singular memory or in multiple memories. Thus, with respect to creating, one can speak of a dialectical process where the dialogue is either “internal” or “external”.

The advent of the expelled in exile leads to “external” dialogues. This spontaneously causes an industrious creativity in the vicinity of the expelled. He is a catalyst for the synthesis of new information. If, however, he becomes aware of his uprootedness as his dignity, then an “internal” dialogue begins within himself; which is to say, an exchange between the information he has brought with him, and an entire ocean with waves of information that toss around him in exile.

The objective is the creation of meaning between the imported information and the chaos that surrounds him. If these “external” and “internal” dialogues are harmonized with each other, they transform in a creative manner not only the world, but also the original natives and the expelled.

This is what I meant when I said what freedom means for the expelled: the freedom to remain a stranger, different from the others. It is the freedom to change oneself and others as well.

The expelled is the Other of others. Which is to say, he is other for the others, and the others are other for him.

In this manner, he is able to “identify.” His advent in exile allows the original natives to uncover that they are unable to “identify” without him.


For the expelled threatens the “particular nature” of the original natives; his strangeness calls them into question. But, even such a polemical dialogue is creative; for it leads to the synthesis of new information. Exile, no matter what form it takes, is a breeding ground for creative activity, for the new.

To Interact

Flusser, Vilém. ‘To Interact’ Into the Universe of Technical Images trans. by Nancy Ann Roth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011) pp.51-60

Technical images are not mirrors but projectors. They draw up plans on deceptive surfaces, and these plans are meant to become life plans for their recipients. No longer people but rather technical images lie at the center, [of contemporary society] and accordingly, it is the relationships between technical images and people by which society must be classified, for example, by groups such as cinema-goers, television watchers, or computer users.

Explanations for people’s needs, wishes, feelings, and knowledge are to be found in technical images.

The relationship between technical images and people, the interactions between the two, are therefore the central issues of the coming cultural criticism, and all other issues are to  be grasped from this point.
A technical image is directed toward a person. It presses in on him and finds him in even the most secret reaches of his private space.
Technical images press through countless channels (television channels, picture magazines, computer terminals) into private space. They replace and improve the distribution of information that once occurred in public spaces and in so doing block off all public spaces. People don’t go from the private into the public any more because they can be better informed at home and because there is essentially no public space left to which to go.
One single technical image, namely, film, appears to run counter to the insistently projective orientation.  In this case, it looks as if images are projected against a publicly erected screen and that people must go to a public space, the cinema, to see these images.
And if cinema were in fact a theater, that is to say, a place of visibility, of “theory”, then one could say that film is a case of a technical image showing its viewer how to see through appearances and liberate himself from the image. Unfortunately, this is a mistaken view.

Film is shown in cinemas not to awaken a political and philosophical consciousness in its viewers but because it relies on a technology from the nineteenth century, when receivers still needed to go to the sender.

Films are being replaced by electronic recording technologies, and cinemas will disappear.
The penetrating force of technical images drives their receiver into a corner, puts him under pressure, and this pressure leads him to press keys to make images appear in the corner. It is therefore optimistic nonsense to claim to be free not to switch the television on, not to order any newspapers, and not to photograph. The energy required to withstand the penetrating force of technical images would project such a person out of the social context. Technical images do isolate those who receive them in corners, but they isolate those few who flee from them even further.
However, the reception of technical images does not end the communication process. Receivers are not sponges that simply absorb. On the contrary, they must react.
On the outside, they must act in accordance with the technical images they have received: buy soap, go on holiday, vote for a political party. However, for the interaction between image and person under discussion here, it is crucial that receivers also react to the received image on the inside. They must feed it.

The images have feedback channels that run in the opposite direction from the distributing channels and that inform the senders about receiver’ reactions, channels like market research, demography, and political elections.


This feedback enables the images to change, to become better and better, and more like the receivers want them to be; that is, the images become more and more like the receivers want them to be so that the receivers can become more and more like the image want them to be. That is the interaction between image and person, in brief.

Flusser gives examples: one in a cinema when the projector shakes, and another of a scientist watching a football match on television.
The image shows a political party for which it wants us to vote, and we want the image to show us the party because we want to vote for it. This circuit can’t be closed, however, for then the images would fall into entropic decay. They would always be the same images, reproduced ad infinitum. To get better (to always give the receiver something new, to be able to program innovatively), the image must get feedback from somewhere other than the receiver.

The images feed on history, on politics  on science, art, on events of so-called daily life, and not only from current but also from past events.

A photograph shows a political demonstration, a film a battle that has been fought this week, a television program a reconstruction of a nineteenth century laboratory, a videotape a Renaissance building.
In this way, it begins to look as though technical images were windows through which the receiver, having been driven into his corner, can observe things that are happening outside, and as if these images could always renew themselves because new things are always happening and because the sources on which they draw (past history) could never be exhausted.
On closer inspection, however, both the windowlike character of technical images and inexhaustability of history oriented to past and future turn out to be in error.
Current events no longer roll toward some sort of future but toward technical images. Images are not windows; they are history’s obstructions.
And this initiates a novel sort of interaction, a feedback between image and event. The event dines on images, and the images dine on events. The moon landing was to produce a television programme, and a mission to the moon was on the television broadcaster’s schedule. Part of getting married is to be photographed and weddings conform to a photographic program.

This will become increasingly clear for all events. Our historical consciousness defends itself against this new conception of history. We look for examples to establish that there are interactions free from the pull of technical images (e.g., the relatively image-free war in Afghanistan.


In its first, current phase, this reversal of events from the future to the image causes events to speed up. Events are caught in the undertow of the images and roll against them more and more wildly. One political event follows another more and more precipitously, a scientific theory is introduced, an artistic style replaces another almost before it has been established. The life span of a model is now measured not in centuries but in months. Progress accelerates. Yet the models don’t fall over each other to change the world, but always,in theory eternally, to be shown in images. The linearity of history is turned against the circularity of technical images. History advances to be turned into images – posthistory.

Although the length of time images have been sucking up history is sort compared to history’s full duration, the first signs are appearing that this source is exhausted. Images are beginning to scratch at the bottom of a well thought to be bottomless. It makes no difference whether the images draw from the present or the past. For them historical categories have lost their meaning.


For these images, the universe of history is nothing more than a field of possibilities from which images can be made.

And once there is an image, everything is in the present and turns into an eternal repetition of the same, whether it is about a battle in the Lebanese War or in the Peloponnesian War. In this way, the images reach back to transform the past into a current program design to program receivers  as the past is reduced to serving as a source of images.
What we call “history” is the way in which conditions can be recognised through linear texts. Texts produce history by projecting their own linear structure onto a particular situation. By imposing texts on a cultural object, one produces cultural history, and by imposing texts on a natural objects (which happened relatively recently), one produces natural history.
Such historicizing of conditions affects people’s perspectives. Because nothing need repeat itself in a linear structure, each element has a unique position with respect to the whole.
This dramatizing state of mind characterizes historical consciousness. It stands in opposition to a pre-historic state of mind, for which everything in the environment (as in an image) must repeat itself, for which time moves in a circle, bringing everything back into its proper place, and for which the point is not to change the world but to escape just punishment for interfering with it.
Technical images translate historical events into infinitely repeatable projections.
A consciousness appropriate to technical images operates outside history. Stories and texts become materials for images.
For technical images, history and prehistory are pretexts from which to draw nourishment.
In their current first phase, technical images can still constantly renew themselves by feeding on history. But history is about to dry up, and this exactly because images are feeding on it, because they sit on historical threads like parasites, recoding them into circles. As soon as these circles are closed, the interaction between image and person will, in fact, become a closed feedback loop. Images will then always show the same thing, and people will always want to see the same thing. A cloak of endless, eternal boredom will spread itself over society. Society will succumb to entropy, and we can already confirm that the decay is on us: it expresses itself in the receiver’s zeal for the sensational – there always have to be new images because all images have long since begun to get boring. The interaction between image and person is marked by entropy tending towards death.
These images [technical] are programmed for an eternal return of the same; they were invented for this specific purpose: to bring an end to linearity, to reactivate the magic circle and a memory that eternally turns, bringing everything into the present.

Such a rupture of the magical circle between image and person is the task we face, and this rupture is not only technically but above all existentially possible. For images are beginning to bore us, in spite of the contract we have with them.

The traffic between images and people is the central problem of a society ruled by technical images. It is the point where the rising so-called information society may be restructured and made humane.

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.