Alan Shapiro—The Future of the Image (Part Two)

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Alan N. Shapiro is the author of “Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance” and the editor/translator of “The Technological Herbarium” by Gianna Maria Gatti. His small book “Software of the Future” will be published in 2013 by the Walther König Verlag.

In the video to the left Alan provides a transition from the first part of the essay published in Issue #1, February, 2013 to the second part below.


 

In Into the Universe of Technical Images, Flusser also makes a very interesting critique of what he calls ‘classical sociology’, a critique that is very similar to what I have written about elsewhere in conceptualizing the difference between what I call ‘classical sociology’ and ‘quantum physics sociology’. Flusser’s comment about sociology appears to be a non sequitur. It seems to come out of nowhere, like a stub, with no threads really connecting it to the book’s context or framing the argument. This appearance of “it does not logically follow” is deceptive. At the beginning of the chapter called “To Interact” (about two-sevenths of the way through the book), Flusser realizes suddenly that his awareness of the importance of technical images has huge implications for the entire way in which we think about the social world. Flusser writes:

“[The way that technical images function] 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 relationships between people, for example, into groups such as families, nationalities, or classes. Classical sociology’s cultural objects are mediations between people, and those objects ― such as tables, houses, and autos ― are therefore to be explained starting with the people. Such an approach and such criteria no longer apply to contemporary social structure. No longer people but rather technical images lie at the center.” (p.51) (Flusser, Vilém, 2011, Into the Universe of Technical Images (originally published in German in 1985 as Ins Universum der technischen Bilder) (translated by Nancy Ann Roth, introduction by Mark Poster); Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.)

Flusser astutely notes that, in the cyberspace era, there is no more public space and no more private space. The concepts of public and private ― as far as I can tell still very much in common use by academic sociologists and political scientists ― are obsolete. And old-fashioned ‘humanists’ who believe they can escape the media culture through abstinence are also very much mistaken: “It is therefore an optimistic nonsense to claim to be free not to switch the television on, not to order any newspapers, and not to photograph.” [or not to skype, not to e-mail, and not to learn programming languages…] (p.53)

Classical sociologists still base their ‘scientific sociology’ on a 19th-century scientific paradigm (that of Auguste Comte) which assumes a world of docile objects waiting to be ‘objectively’ investigated, a classical worldview that assumes the existence of a social world and social problems rationally ordered by the sovereign thinking subject of social science who is in control. A new radical sociology would also be scientific ― it would be based on the 20th-century sciences of quantum physics, special/general relativity, chaos/complexity theory, Gödelian incompleteness, Riemannian geometry, cybernetic epistemology, holistic biology, and some others. It would consider much stranger and wily objects in an unmasterable social field governed by relations of radical uncertainty and paradox. The World thinks me; the Inhuman thinks me. Everything is relativistic, enigmatic, and aleatory. Social reality is nearly a total chaos. Countries, nationalities, immigration, religions, hybrid languages, identities, gender, sexuality: it is almost beyond our comprehension, laden with strange effects.

For many traditional humanist intellectuals and art experts, television is just the idiot box. It is the very last place that these guardians of ‘high culture’ would think to look for the liminal appearance of ideas, sublime forms, cognitive and conceptual breakthroughs, the ‘new real’, or the making of history. For the previous generation of ‘old media’ theorists ― with its classic position that ‘the medium is the message’ ― the content of TV programs was secondary to the extensive restructuring and ‘patterning of human relationships’ (Marshall McLuhan) or to the undirectionally encoded ‘speech without response’ (Jean Baudrillard) operationally instituted by a primarily process-oriented communications technology. One can transcend this downplaying of the message through cultivation of the very sensitivity to the medium as ‘culturally framing technological-literary form’ that one learns from these two thinkers. Science fiction, fantasy, and crime investigation TV shows are the literature of today. They can tell us more about what is going on in the world than any other genre of artistic expression. The real-time phenomenological details of these hyper-modern virtual narrative paintings are to be treated as the object-oriented fractal micro-constituents or graphic brush strokes of an intensively signifying language.

Reversing McLuhan’s designation of it as ‘cool’ (in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man), television must henceforth be seen as a hot medium. One passes from the negative analysis of the electronic media as externalized mediations of the human body, senses, and psyche (McLuhan) or “semiological reduction” of symbolic relations (Baudrillard) to the affirmative mindfulness of a much more personally involved moment-to-moment immersion in the thoughts, feelings, and perceptions of the posthuman avatar bodies whose VR experiences are the outriding vehicle for ascending to an orbital writing space. To the dramaturgical enactment carried out by the scriptwriters, actors, and directors of Star Trek, Lost, The Prisoner, The Wire, Mad Men, CSI, 24, The Sopranos, or Six Feet Under is added the act of writing by the media philosopher. Television is a hot medium now because it is suspenseful, which for the Greeks was the highest form of art; and because the “spirit of the times” in Hegel’s sense is embedded in a TV show like Lost; and because the form, format, or media is constantly present in micro-particle ways in the content, meaning, story.

The field of television studies needs to be set on a completely new footing. The perspective of Stuart Hall, for example, which has been very influential in the field, is too limiting. It is OK to be a Marxist of sorts in the sense of being against ‘alienated labor’ (see my essay “Play Don’t Work in a Pragmatic-Utopian High-Tech Enterprise”). But all this stuff about race and gender analysis, the hegemonic code, power, institutions, reception theory, Barthes, Eco, a little semiotics thrown in… This stuff is old, outdated, tired. The Stuart Hall paradigm seems to be the dominant paradigm in television studies. The song goes like this: “Television is a media of manipulation by means of which the ruling class exercises its hegemony over the oppressed…” No, it is not really like that.

As Flusser writes in Towards a Philosophy of Photography: “First, the practice of photographing is hostile to any ideology. Ideology is the assumption of a single point of view as preferential to all others. The photographer acts in a post-ideological way, even if some photographers believe that they are committed to a particular ideology. Second, the practice of photography is bound to a program. The photographer can only act within the program of his technology, even if she believes herself to be acting against this program. This obtains for every kind of post-industrial act. It is both ‘phenomenological,’ in the sense of its being anti-ideological, and it is a programmed action. This is the reason why it is a mistake to speak of ideology in the case of mass culture (for example, in the case of mass photography). Programming is a post-industrial manipulation.” (Flusser 1996: pp.50-51) (my translation of the French translation of the original German, with input from the published English translation)

The Marxist notions of work, ideology, industrial society, and the alleged instrumental use of a media techology or cultural artefact for purposes of class hegemony or domination are no longer relevant. “The photographic apparatus is not a tool, but rather a toy. The photographer is not a worker, but rather a player: not homo faber, but homo ludens.” (Flusser 1996: p.35) (my translation of the French translation of …) To paraphrase Flusser in Towards a Philosophy of Photography, media technologies do no work and they don’t transform the world. They transform the meaning of the world, its symbolic dimension. Marxist theories of technology-slash-media tend to be wrong (even when the ‘cultural sun tan’ of a little semiotics or a little ‘Heidegger’ is appended) because they project onto the specific technology or media under discussion the fundamental Marxist prejudice-slash-philosophical-category of work-slash-production. We are no longer in the era of industry and production (of tools and machines), and the imaging technology ‘apparatuses’, as Flusser calls them, do no work. The actor known as the photographer (who is an embodied-metaphorical stand-in for all technology ‘programmers’) is not a proletarian.

This analysis could be extended to mostly all media technologies, for example, to television. The term ‘photography’ for Flusser is an embodied-metaphorical stand-in for all contemporary media. The dominant Marxist (or feminist or post-colonialist) paradigm in television studies undermines the complex, paradoxical aspects (alluded to by Flusser) that go into the production and dissemination of the message or code. The structure of the gesture of photography is quantum. It is a gesture of doubt composed of point-like hesitations and point-like decisions. It is a typically post-industrial gesture: it is post-ideological and programmed, and it takes information to be ‘real’ in itself, not seeking to ‘decode’ the meaning of that information, as Stuart Hall would have us do.

From the perspective of today, from the vantage point of the culture of intensified zapping of omnipresent hypertext links ― we now see more clearly (by contrast with hyper-zapping) the unity of the scientific and literary cultures (“of the past”). The scientific and literary cultures no longer stand in opposition to each other. They are both cultures of the text. In 2013, we are now entering into a post-‘Science Wars’ discourse where, more than ever, there is a desire to develop what Charles P. Snow termed an in-between ‘Third Culture’, one that would reconcile the formerly divided two separate cultures. In the 1963 revised edition of his book The Two Cultures, and A Second Look, Snow modified somewhat the views that he had previously expressed in the 1959 original edition of the book The Two Cultures

The invention of linear writing and the invention of technical images are the two crucial historical moments in Flusser’s genealogy. But there is no epistemological break between the two events, as there is for McLuhan. There is, on the contrary, a continuity. At the beginning of Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser writes: “The technical image is an image produced by technologies. Technologies, in turn, are products of the application of scientific texts, which makes technical images indirect products of scientific texts. The historical and ontological situation of technical images is different from the one occupied by traditional images ― precisely because they are the indirect results of scientific texts. Historically, traditional images preceded texts by tens of thousands of years, and technical images succeed texts… Ontologically, traditional images are first-degree abstractions, since they were abstracted from the concrete world. Technical images, for their part, are third-degree abstractions: they are abstracted from texts, which in turn are abstracted from traditional images, which were themselves abstracted from the concrete world. Historically, traditional images may be called ‘pre-historical,’ while technical images may be called ‘post-historical’… Ontologically, traditional images mean phenomena, while technical images mean concepts.” (Flusser 1996: pp.17-18) (my translation of the French translation of the original German, with input from the published English translation)

At present, the media culture of images is practicing the manipulation of images and “pornography of images” (Baudrillard) in an extreme way. Flusser inspires us to create an alternative to this. He offers the basis for action. The television series mentioned above (combined with the act of writing about them) are examples of this action towards the conscious awakening of a ‘revolutionary popular culture’ ― a radicalization-yet-going-mainstream of ‘fan culture’ ― in Antonio Gramsci’s sense. It would be futile to offer more examples of Flusser-inspired-action right now, because his work is perhaps the basis for an entire reinvention of media theory, media studies, and social-political-activism-slash-change.

We need a new conscious practice of images ― images related to concepts, images related to the awareness and defense of ‘basic culture’, images related to the reinvigoration of the hybrid scientific-literary culture that is the legacy of the West.

 

Part One of this essay appeared in Issue 1 of VJIC

 Return to Issue 2 Table of Contents

(You are invited to add to the conversation below.) 

 


References

Baudrillard, Jean, 1981. “The Semiological Reduction” and “Requiem for the Media” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (originally published in French in 1972 as Pour une critique de l’économie politique du signe) (translated with an introduction by Charles Levin); St.Louis: Telos Press.

Buber, Martin, I and Thou (many editions). German: Ich und Du (many editions, originally published in 1923).

Flusser, Vilém, 2011, Into the Universe of Technical Images (originally published in German in 1985 as Ins Universum der technischen Bilder) (translated by Nancy Ann Roth, introduction by Mark Poster); Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Flusser, Vilém, 1996, Pour une philosophie de la photographie (originally published in German in 1983 as Für eine Philosophie der Fotographie) (English translation by Anthony Mathews online at http://www.scribd.com/doc/49129765/Flusser-Towards-a-Philosophy-of-Photography) (traduit de l’allemand par Jean Mouchard); Bulgarie: les éditions Circé.

Foucault, Michel, 1997, “The Ethics of Care for the Self as the Practice of Freedom” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth (edited by Paul Rabinow) (translated by Robert Hurley et al.); New York: The New Press, pp. 281-301.

Huizinga, Johan, 1971, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (translated by R.F.C. Hull) (originally published in Dutch in 1938); Boston: Beacon Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, 1962, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man; Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall, 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man; New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall and Powers, Bruce R., 1989, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century; New York: Oxford University Press.

Molinaro, Matie, McLuhan, Corinne & Toye, William (eds.), 1987, Letters of Marshall McLuhan; New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Janet, 1997, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shapiro, Alan N., 2004, Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance; Berlin: AVINUS Verlag.

Snow, Charles P., 1959, The Two Cultures; London: Cambridge University Press.

Snow, Charles P., 1963, The Two Cultures, and a Second Look; London: Cambridge University Press.

Voss, Vanessa A., 2006. The Useless Perfection of Pornography: Baudrillard’s Critique of Sexual Reason; Houston: University of Houston Press.

 

Part One of this essay appeared in Issue 1 of VJIC

 Return to Issue 2 Table of Contents

(You are invited to add to the conversation below.) 

 

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