The following essay is part of the Los Angeles Review of Books special series “No Crisis”: a look at the state of critical thinking and writing — literary interpretation, art history, and cultural studies — in the 21st century. Click here for the full series.
RECENTLY I WAS in the mood to listen to the music of the American mid-century composer Morton Feldman. I dug into my MP3 drive, found my Feldman folder and opened it up. Amongst the various folders in the directory was one labeled “The Complete Works of Morton Feldman.” I was surprised to see it there; I didn’t remember downloading it. Curious, I looked at its date — 2009 — and realized that I must’ve grabbed it during the heyday of MP3 sharity blogs. I opened it to find 79 albums as zipped files. I unzipped three of them, listened to part of one, and closed the folder. I haven’t opened it since.
My experience with Feldman indicates how, in a time when cultural artifacts are abundantly available, our primary focus has migrated from use to acquisition; I have more MP3s than I’ll ever be able to listen to in the next 10 lifetimes, yet I compulsively keep downloading more. In this way our role as librarians and archivists has outpaced our role as cultural consumers. Engaging with media in a traditional sense is often the last thing we do, that is (like my Feldman experience), if we ever get to it at all. In the digital ecosystem, the apparatuses surrounding the artifact are more engaging than the artifact itself. Management (acquisition, distribution, archiving, filing, redundancy) is the cultural artifact’s new content. Context is the new content. In an unanticipated twist to John Perry Barlow’s 1994 prediction that in the digital age we’d be able to enjoy wine without the bottles, we’ve now come to prefer the bottles to the wine.
Back in 1983, the media critic and philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920–1991) described this exact phenomenon in a little book called Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Flusser claimed that the content of any given photograph is actually the camera that produced it. He continued with a series of nested apparatuses: The content of the camera is the programming that makes it function; the content of the programming is the photographic industry that produces it; and the content of the photographic industry is the military-industrial complex in which it is situated, and so forth. He viewed photography from a completely technical standpoint. In Flusser’s view, the traditional content of the cultural artifact is completely subsumed by the apparatuses — technical, political, social, and industrial — surrounding, and thereby defining, it.
Although he was writing about analog, print-based photography, Flusser’s ideas go a long way to explain our changing relationship to the cultural artifact in the digital age, reminding us of Moholy-Nagy’s prediction that “those who are ignorant in matters of photography will be the illiterates of tomorrow.”
The mistake most make in reading Flusser is assume that he’s talking about photography. Yes, he is, but that’s the least relevant part. Imagine, instead, that everything he’s saying about photography he’s saying about the digital. This requires an act of imaginative translation on our part, but once you make that leap, you realize that this 1983 text astonishingly directly addresses our situation some three decades later. For instance, Flusser claimed that the camera was the ancestor of apparatuses, which are in the process of “robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.” And when we look at social media — from blogs, to Twitter, to Facebook, and to Instagram — we can see he was correct. The Twitter game is like Wittgenstein’s language games; we must learn the rules in order to play. Obeying such rules — going with the apparatus instead of against it — results in victories, substantiated by gains in followers and retweets. Failure to follow the rules (there are no official rules, actually, only a set of community-based standards that most players unquestioningly follow) results in isolation: loss of followers and tweets that go unretweeted. When we tweet, the 140-character constraint determines the form of our content, forcing us to tailor/robotize our production in order to comply with the Twitter apparatus.
Like the camera, the Twitter apparatus coerces/seduces us to tweet, and we dutifully obey. Once we’re hooked into the game, we become compulsive: the more we tweet, the more we enrich the program, thereby increasing its standing within the larger social media apparatus and ultimately, boosting Twitter’s share price. In Flusserian terms, it doesn’t really matter what we tweet (content); it just matters that we keep tweeting (apparatus). In his thinking, Flusser was obviously influenced by McLuhan’s medium as message, but we can read through the digital: When McLuhan claims that the “content of any medium is always another medium,” Flusser might reframe this as “the content of any medium is always the series of apparatuses that produced it.”
In fact, content plays no role whatsoever in Flusser’s writing. A photograph is not a carrier of memories — your baby pictures are interchangeable with a million other baby pictures — but a predetermined artifact spit out by the camera apparatus. The camera is a voracious, greedy device, programmed to stalk images the way an animal stalks prey: the camera smells blood and (literally) snaps. Like Twitter, the more you shoot, the more you become addicted to the photographic apparatus, which Flusser likens to opium addiction or being on a “photograph-trip.” In the end, you end up working for the camera and the industry that produced it. The more people who use an apparatus, the more feedback the company receives about its camera, the smarter it becomes, drawing more users to its base, thereby increasing the manufacturer’s bottom line. For this reason, Instagram keeps adding new filter sets and features in order to retain and broaden its user base. To Instagram, the content of the photos people are taking is beside the point; the real point is that they keep taking them in order to fortify the apparatus.
Photography is easy. Anyone can push a button and produce a photograph without having a clue as to the inner workings of a camera. A lens on a camera will inevitably take telescopic photos. The program of the camera overrides the artifact that it produces. The programmers of cameras strive to keep their interfaces as simple as possible, to discourage experimentation outside of its parameters. The simple interface keeps the photographer pushing the button so they can produce, in Flusser’s words, “more and more redundant images.” The free cost of digital photography keeps the photographer playing the photographic game. (How many people snapping photos with a smartphone only take one shot of any given scene?) Those photos are uploaded to the cloud, where ever-more redundant photos are stored. Your photo of the Flatiron Building on Flickr is identically redundant to the millions already stored on Flickr, yet you keep on snapping them (just as I keep downloading MP3s).
The camera doesn’t work for us. We work for the camera. Our compulsive behavior leaves no scene undocumented. I shoot therefore I am. Or as The Kinks put it, “People take pictures of each other / Just to prove that they really existed.” When we take a holiday to a foreign country, the photos don’t show the sights we saw, they show us the places where the camera has been and what it’s done there. We think we’re documenting our own memories, but what we’re actually producing is memories for the apparatus. The digital photograph’s metadata — geo-tagging, likes, shares, user connectivity, and so forth — proves much more valuable to Instagram than any subject matter it captures. The image is irrelevant in comparison to the apparatuses surrounding it.
Once we buy into a specific apparatus, it’s awfully hard to leave it. Your cultural artifact is locked within that system, constrained by its programming. Notice how another user’s Instagram photo can’t be resized, emailed, or downloaded to your hard drive. It can’t exist within any other ecosystem than Instagram’s. Notice how easily Instagram can be integrated into the interface of its parent company, Facebook, but how difficult it is to share on Twitter, a competitor’s platform. While we play the Instagram game by liking and reposting photos, the apparatus knows otherwise: a “like” is a way for the shareholder to verify that there are consumers populating the program; the greater and more verifiable the user base, the more valuable the apparatus.
The physical value even of a printed photograph is negligible: it’s just a piece of paper with information on it — cheap, ubiquitous, unstable, and infinitely reproducible. As opposed to a painting, where the value of the object resides in its singularity, the value of a photograph lies in the information on its surface. Its surface is ephemeral and, in the digital age, rewritable. The photograph is a pivotal artifact, bridging the industrial and post-industrial, embodying the transition from the physical to the purely informational. How that information is distributed determines much of its meaning.
In a paper-bound economy, its ubiquity in physical space was its distributive metric. But even then, the content in a poster or handbill was somewhere other than its image. Flusser writes, “The poster is without value; nobody owns it, it flaps torn in the wind yet the power of the advertising agency remains undiminished …” Depending upon context and distribution, the paperbound image could take on different meanings. Unlike, say, an image of a rocket ship glued to a television screen, a photograph of a rocket ship published in a newspaper could be clipped, stuffed into an envelope, and sent to a friend. Available to be passed hand-to-hand, the moveable photographic artifact anticipated our vast image-sharing networks.
The camera resembles a game of chess. It contains what appears to be an infinite number of possibilities, but in the end, those possibilities are prescribed by its programming. Just as every possible move and permutation of a chess game has long been exhausted, every program of the camera too has long been exhausted. In the case of Instagram, with a user base of over 200 million users, the programs are instantly exhausted, resulting in updates to the program that include new features in order to retain users. Although finite, the apparatus must always give the illusion of infinity in order to make each user feel that they can never exhaust the program. Or as Flussser says, “Photographs permanently displacing one another according to a program are redundant precisely because they are always ‘new’ …” Your cell phone still makes calls, but you’d be foolish to think that it is about being a telephone in same way that you’d be foolish to think that Instagram is about expressive photography.
After Flusser, the photo criticism of Sontag or Barthes, each of whom mostly ignores the apparatus in favor of the artifact, appears to miss the point entirely. Their achingly beautiful literary readings of the photograph as memento mori or studies in studium and punctum have no place in the Flusserian universe. While Sontag makes pronouncements like, “Photography is an elegiac art, a twilight art. Most subjects photographed are, just by virtue of being photographed, touched with pathos,” Flusser counters that readings like Sontag’s are simply more fodder for the apparatus: “A number of human beings are struggling against this automatic programming … attempting to create a space for human intention in a world dominated by apparatuses. However, the apparatuses themselves automatically assimilate these attempts at liberation and enrich their programs with them.”
The only hope? Those who attempt to break the system by doing something with the camera that was never intended by industry: Thomas Ruff, who took intentionally boring portraits or enlarged JPEGs to monumental scale, thereby exploiting their crappy resolution; or the blurred portraits of Bill Jacobson, so intentionally out of focus that the head of the subject resembles little more than a blot. Twitter is trickier to break. Attempts at self-reflexive critique within the Twitter apparatus such as @Horse_ebooks are instantly absorbed by the apparatus and celebrated by the corporation to highlight the diversity and playfulness of its expanded user base (once again making the company a more valuable entity). Again, the Twitter apparatus “automatically assimilates these attempts at liberation and enriches their programs with them.”
I recall a few years ago, a prominent art historian asked me to join a reading group focused on media and communications studies. She was sensing that in order to be able to understand art being made in a postdigital time, literary-based models of art criticism (Krauss, Buchloh, October, etc.) would only get us so far. In order to understand contemporary culture, we needed to move from the artifact to the apparatus. So she proposed getting together and reading people like Flusser, Kittler, Groys, Manovich, Galloway, Sterne, Dean, Gitelman, and Parikka. The effect was profound and immediate. Suddenly, much of the new art and literature found a receptive framework and history that could speak to the networked conditions of the digital age.
In Flusser, we’ve found our Wittgenstein. By that I mean, in the ways that 1960s conceptual artists found his Philosophical Investigations as granting them the necessary permission to see the world around them with fresh eyes, Flusser’s forays into media have framed, theorized, and unpacked the new complexities of our digital world. By empirically questioning received knowledge and recasting it within crisp lines of history and logic, he’s made the digital legible in a time when its theorization is occluded and murky to say the least. Like de Kooning’s famous statement: “History does not influence me. I influence it,” it’s taken Flusser’s analog-based investigations in the 20th century to show how to be in the digitally soaked 21st.
- Flusser, Vilém. Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 1983/2000), p. 71.
- Ibid, p. 58.
- Of course one could screen cap every Instagram on one’s feed and save it to disc, but doing so would be to orphan that artifact; stripped of its apparatus, the image would lose much of its meaning.
- One only need remember Ello, the social network which grew as quickly as it could, populating its shell with as many users as it could garner, only to be flipped as soon as possible. It was selling its enormous user base, not its “content.”
- Flusser, p. 52.
- We could also say that file-sharing networks later permitted the sharing of that television show, but in its entirety, not a single image. In order to extract a single image from TV, you had to invoke the photographic model and shoot it off the TV screen, thereby turning it into a photograph.
- Flusser, p. 65.
- Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: RosettaBrooks, 1973/2005) p. 13.
- Flusser, p. 75.
- Flusser, p. 75.
- Morton Feldman, “The Anxiety of Art” (1965) in Give My Regards to Eighth Street, ed. B.H. Friedman (Cambridge, MA, Exact Change), 2000, p. 32.