Fotograf Magazine

Photography and Non-Photography

Vilém Flusser’s notorious essay Towards a Philosophy of Photography, first published in German in 1983, here comes out already for the second time in Czech and the present edition thus represents, more than anything, an opportunity to rethink the contemporary context of Flusser’s ideas. The book is published with an afterword by the Czech theorist Karel Thein, emphasizing the originality of Flusser’s thinking as opposed to the previous aesthetic tradition, yet at the same time contextualizing Flusser within what has come to be seen as the traditional framework of philosophical thought (Claude Lévi-Strauss, George Kubler, Jacques Derrida, Gaston Bachelard, Baruch Spinoza, and in particular Gilles Deleuze).

As Karel Thein reminds us, the core of Flusser’s book revolves around the issue of freedom. The final and simultaneously crucial question that Vilém Flusser poses is the following: if we live in a society which “changes its structure radically” under the influence of photography, then we must ask what the possibilities are for critically confronting this development, in order to preserve our freedom in the midst of a universe of technical images. He goes on to offer a clear answer, though in the form of a working proposition: we must realize the limitations of photography and start experimenting, “playing against the apparatus”. Even more important however, is that in order to do so, we need a philosophy of photography.

This is in brief the program of Flusser’s book, and should not be lost in the swift pace of his writing, organized as it is around the central notions of photography – representation, apparatus, program, information. It is this very programmatic quality and resolve to define and articulate the central questions and answers that make Flusser stand out from the traditional current of the literary-oriented essay (Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag). He rather takes the discussion closer to contemporary problems of art, liberating it from earlier considerations in its indexical nature (Rosalind E. Krauss), or its dependence on the referent in general (Roland Barthes).

Flusser’s relevance today lies in the fact that he understands photography as a separate problem in its own right, independent of its subject (referent, ideology, and so on). This as well as his unmistakable didactic thrust (e. g. photography as an apparatus, an opportunity for experiment) brings him close to François Laruelle’s Concept of Non-Photography. In contrast to Laruelle’s notion of philosophy as photography (“the philosopher as the self-portrait of the photographer”) Flusser’s dialectic does not bind philosophy to photography, but the bond itself runs the other way around. It retains a critical detachment (photography as a technical image, the subject of critical philosophy), and together with it accessibility to a far larger audience.

Flusser’s contemplation of communication can be read as an original take on the issue of new media (e.g. his notion of program). His concept of the magical power of photography can also be connected to contemporary interest in revisiting the aesthetic and imagination of post-conceptual art (Jan Voerwert). Though Flusser offers few clues, he presents a functional and relevant paradigm of not only a philosophical, but also a practical, approach to photography.

Václav Janoščík