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Into the Universe of Technical Images

Into the Universe of Technical Images

Vilém Flusser
Introduction by Mark Poster
Translated by Nancy Ann Roth
Volume: 32
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Into the Universe of Technical Images
    Book Description:

    Poised between hope and despair for a humanity facing an urgent communication crisis, this work by Vilém Flusser forecasts either the first truly human, infinitely creative society in history or a society of unbearable, oppressive sameness, locked in a pattern it cannot change. Into the Universe of Technical Images outlines the history of communication technology as a process of increasing abstraction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-7696-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. An Introduction to Vilém Flusser’s Into the Universe of Technical Images and Does Writing Have a Future?
    (pp. ix-xxviii)
    Mark Poster

    Vilém Flusser remains relatively unknown to readers of critical theory, cultural studies, and media studies, particularly among readers of English. Given this, the Electronic Mediations series of the University of Minnesota Press herewith publishes in English translation two of his most important works,Does Writing Have a Future? andInto the Universe of Technical Images, both translated by Nancy Ann Roth. We trust that these publications, in addition to those already available from this and other presses, will bring Flusser’s ideas to a wider English audience. Flusser ought not to require an introduction such as I provide because his work...

  4. Into the Universe of Technical Images

    • Warning
      (pp. 3-4)

      With the ideas presented here, I am attempting to follow up a bit more closely on trends noticeable in contemporary technical images such as photographs or television images. In the process, I raise the prospect of a future society that synthesizes electronic images. Seen from here and now, it will be a fabulous society, where life is radically different from our own. Current scientific, political, and artistic categories will hardly be recognizable there, and even our state of mind, our existential mood, will take on a new and strange coloration. This is not about a future floating in the far...

    • To Abstract
      (pp. 5-10)

      This essay is about the universe of technical images, the universe that for the past few decades has been making use of photographs, films, videos, television screens, and computer terminals to take over the task formerly served by linear texts, that is, the task of transmitting information crucial to society and to individuals. It is concerned with a cultural revolution whose scope and implications we are just beginning to suspect. Since human beings depend for their lives more on learned and less on genetic information than do other living things, the structure through which information is carried exerts a decisive...

    • To Imagine
      (pp. 11-14)

      The split in the life world between object and subject happened some two million years ago somewhere in East Africa. About forty thousand years ago, no doubt in a cave in southwestern Europe, the subject withdrew further into its subjectivity to get an overview of the objective circumstances in which it found itself. But at such a remove, things were no longer tangible, manifest, for no hand could reach them anymore. They could only be seen. They were merely appearances—objective circumstances turned into apparent, “phenomenal,” and therefore deceptive circumstances: in pursuit of an apparition, hands can miss the object....

    • To Make Concrete
      (pp. 15-22)

      According to the suggested model of cultural history, we are about to leave the one-dimensionality of history for a new, dimensionless level, one to be called, for lack of a more positive designation, “posthistory.” The rules that once sorted the universe into processes, concepts into judgments, are dissolving. The universe is disintegrating into quanta, judgments into bits of information. In fact, the rules are dissolving exactly because we followed them into the core of both the universe and our own consciousness. At the core of the universe, particles no longer follow the rules (e.g., chain reactions) and begin to buzz,...

    • To Touch
      (pp. 23-32)

      Having disintegrated into particles, all recognizable orientation points having become abstract, the world is now to be gathered together so that we may again experience it, recognize it, act in it. This is what envisioners do. Yet the particles that need gathering are neither visible nor graspable nor comprehensible. They can only be grasped with the help of instruments capable of reaching into the mass of particles. These instruments are called “keys.” Although we’ve long been familiar with keys and use them for the most part without thinking, we’re still a long way from understanding them. If we want to...

    • To Envision
      (pp. 33-40)

      Technical images are envisioned surfaces. When we look at a photograph with a magnifying glass, we see grains. When we get close to the television screen, we see points. It is true that the photograph is a chemical image and the television an electronic one and that we are dealing with different ways of structuring particles. But the basic construction of particle elements is the same. As long as there are still images that rely on chemistry (presumably not much longer), the way the problem of envisioning presents itself technically (and so also perceptually) in surfaces will be different from...

    • To Signify
      (pp. 41-50)

      The foregoing analysis of an emerging way of life was based on the hypothesis that we concentrate our attention more and more on our fingertips, a hypothesis that can be confirmed in the ubiquitous sight of the relevant gesture: pressing buttons. But fingertips don’t just press, they also point toward something, mean something beyond themselves, indicate what they mean. I do not plan to delve into the problems bound up with such concepts as “point,” “indicate,” and “mean,” for I am assuming that thanks to semiotics,signandmeaninghave entered into common language and no longer need elucidation. The...

    • To Interact
      (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. People are supposed to arrange their lives in accordance with these designs. At least that is the way technical images function now, and this has given rise to a social structure in which people no longer group themselves according to problems but rather according to technical images. Such a social structure requires new social criteria, a new sociological approach. Classical sociology begins with people, their needs, desires, feelings, and knowledge, and divides society by...

    • To Scatter
      (pp. 61-68)

      Technical images are at the center of society. But because they are so penetrating, people don’t crowd around them; rather they draw back, each into his corner. A technical image radiates, and at the tip of each ray sits a receiver, on his own. In this way, technical images disperse society into corners. Each technical image (except for film, as discussed) is received as the end point of a ray, as a “terminal.” So the scattered society forms no amorphous heaps; rather the corners are distributed according to a structure that radiates outward from the center. These rays (channels, media)...

    • To Instruct
      (pp. 69-78)

      Technical images are currently connected so that their senders are at the center of society, places from which the images are broadcast to scatter and disperse the society. They are precarious places. When you approach them, whether to take part (to join in the broadcasting) or to criticize (to remodel the circuitry), they present themselves as illusions. They are like the proverbial onion: layer after layer comes away, but when everything has been understood, explained, there’s nothing left. It appears that no one and nothing lies at the center of contemporary society: senders are nothing but those dimensionless points from...

    • To Discuss
      (pp. 79-86)

      The technology that would enable the current discursive circuitry of technical images to be reconfigured into dialogical circuitry is called “telematics.” This name is new, an amalgam oftelecommunicationandinformatics, but the principle to which the new name refers is far older, in fact, just as old as the technology of calculating and computing particle elements, a product of the first half of the nineteenth century. Yet the name’s novelty is itself significant for understanding the current situation. For it shows that we have only very recently become aware of the principle of calculating and computing, that we have...

    • To Play
      (pp. 87-94)

      The central problem to be discussed with regard to a dialogic society is that of generating information. It is this problem that was called “creativity” in former times. How do we get information that is unpredictable and improbable? It looks as though it suddenly appears from nowhere, as if it were a miracle. Hence the conceptcreatio ex nihilo; hence the belief in a creator god; and hence the veneration of creative people, above all so-called artists. The problem of generating information must be lifted out of this mythologizing context to grasp the revolutionary possibilities of a telematic society, a...

    • To Create
      (pp. 95-104)

      As I was concerned to show in the last chapter, the production of information is a game of assembling existing information. Such an insight into the creative process may destroy the mythical aura of creation but not its unique excitement. On the contrary, this creative inspiration, this going-out-of-oneself into the information to be produced, into an adventure, is exactly what freedom is. That can be seen clearly in creative people of the past and present, whether they were scientists, technicians, philosophers, artists, or activists. They work freshly, without self-regard, from the information they have stored within themselves, and they then...

    • To Prepare
      (pp. 105-114)

      The question of freedom, of the capacity to deliberately decide to be informed, has run like a red thread, unanswered, through these reflections. For looking at the difference between natural and cultural information production from the outside, as a matter of degree (culture produces the unexpected more often than nature does), we arrive at a diluted freedom: what a human being achieves through strategic play may be achieved by nature as well, but it takes longer. And in seeing this difference from the inside, so to speak, as that between an implacably automatic nature and a creatively inspired human being,...

    • To Decide
      (pp. 115-122)

      The foregoing discussion of the problem of freedom in the coming telematic society offers something like the following picture of this society: it is like a dialogical net through whose threads information runs from knot to knot, broadly resembling a nervous system and specifically resembling a brain. The knots of this net are human and artificial intelligences, where the information accumulates to be stored, computed into new information, and finally sent on toward other knots. The sum of the information available in the net increases steadily. Therefore the net must be regarded as an unnatural system. For in nature—viewed...

    • To Govern
      (pp. 123-130)

      In the universe of technical, telematic images, there is no place for authors or authorities. Both have become superfluous through the automation of production, reproduction, distribution, and judgment. In this universe, images will govern the experience, behavior, desire, and perceptions of individuals and society, which raises the question, what doesgovernmean when no decisions need to be made and where administration is automatic? In a telematic society, does it still make sense to speak of government, of power and the powerful? I will attempt to answer by way of etymology, that is, by way of the roots of those...

    • To Shrink
      (pp. 131-140)

      Telematic society is a unique sort of ant colony: an ant colony because it has a mosaic-like structure in which all functions interact cybernetically, and unique because rather than working, a telematic ant will sit in its cell and spin apparitions, technical images, pure art. There will be brains that are linked through a dream-secreting superbrain to each other and to artificial brains. And yet there will be bodies attached, like anachronisms, to these brains, bodies that demand to be nourished, to reproduce, and to die: spoilsports.

      These bodies, these spoilsports, these pretelematic participants in the telematic game must be...

    • To Suffer
      (pp. 141-148)

      The following considerations regarding the so-called economic infrastructure of the emerging society rely on a social model, namely, that of Platonic utopia, slightly adjusted. According to Plato, we are beings who have fallen from heaven (topos uranikos) into the world of appearances (phainomena). At home in heaven, we saw eternal and durable ideas in their logical order. Falling into the world, we were engulfed in the river of forgetting (Lethe), and its waters washed away all memory of the Ideas. We have forgotten them. So we come into the world as beings without ideas (idiots), and we can live out...

    • To Celebrate
      (pp. 149-158)

      In the Platonic model I discussed briefly in the previous chapter, a high priority is placed on leisure (schole). It is the goal of life, the seat of wisdom. And it looks as though we are approaching this goal with seven-mile boots. Unemployment is spreading, and automata are taking over those gestures instituted by human beings to change the environment. The division of labor is gradually becoming a question asked by robots of programmers, less a political than a mathematical question. The matter of leisure, so readily dismissed today with the notion of “managing free time,” therefore presents an ever...

    • Chamber Music
      (pp. 159-168)

      The titles of all previous chapters are verbs, in fact, infinitives, calling attention to the way these thoughts push outward, never reaching the horizon. The title of this penultimate chapter is a substantive, to express the hope that the thoughts have arrived at something substantial. This tension between the unbounded quality of the infinitive and the definability of the substantive characterizes not only this essay but any kind of forecasting.

      Forecasting is not a matter of seeing what’s coming. A forecaster looks in the direction in which the present seems to be pointing, at how things will come out, not...

    • Summary
      (pp. 169-174)

      These thoughts have followed a twisting path through a thicket of problems. Someone following it may have a feeling of being led about by the nose. It would have been easy to smooth the way, to cut a motorway straight across the thicket of problems, as has been done in the Amazon. But I have some experience with driving, and with the Amazon. Nothing is more boring than a motorway. It is the bends around the problems that make a journey worthwhile. They offer perspectives on the problems.

      At the end of this work, an overview is nevertheless appropriate. I...

  5. Translator’s Afterword and Acknowledgments
    (pp. 175-178)
    Nancy Ann Roth

    Early in this text, Flusser figures the emerging universe of technical images as a submarine breaking through ice, a powerful ship shattering a firm, continuous surface into pieces as it rises into view. Built up over centuries of engagement with alphanumeric code—with writing—the “ice” that is historical consciousness, that seems so sturdy, has in fact become vulnerable. The shattering break appears in Flusser’s text in verbal images such as the ship but also more slowly, more subjectively or essayistically, as a shattering of words. For the figurative ice is made of language, a structure of sound expanded, honed,...

  6. Translator’s Notes
    (pp. 179-182)
  7. Index
    (pp. 183-193)
  8. Back Matter
    (pp. 194-196)