Intersubjectivity: media metaphors, play & provocation

6th international Vilém Flusser symposium
& event series

march 15-19 1997 budapest hungary

Vilém Flusser interviewed by Miklós Peternák - I.
(1988, unpublished)

Miklós Peternák: Is it possible to define an image?

Vilém Flusser: Yes, I think I can. An image is a meaningful surface.
I will try to analyse this a bit further. When I say meaningful, I mean that it is a surface which contains symbols which are organised in a code, and which therefore permit the receiver to decide for them. When I say surface, I mean that the information which is contained in an image is spread out. It is synchronic, and I who decipher it diachronize this synchronicity. Now, the motion of the eye which deciphers the surface of the image may be called a scanning. The eye follows specific paths. Some of the paths which the eye follows are intended by the producer of the image. But the eye has a certain autonomy, and it may follow its own path. It is for this reason that the message contained in an image is necessarily connotative. An image can be interpreted by every receiver in their own way. This, of course, has the advantage that the message becomes full of meaning, but the disadvantage is that the message is never clear and distinct. It is always, to some extent, confused. Now, the path which the eye follows on the surface is a false path. The eye can return to any element of the image at any time. Thus, the diachronization of the synchronicity of the image is a circular one.
There can be no linear explanation of an image. It cannot be explained via cause and effect. You cannot decipher an image in a linear way; for example, you cannot say that the cock crows because the sun has risen, or that the sun rises because the cock has crowed. Both explanations are good, which is typcial of mythical thinking. The image is a mythical medium. And it is so by its very structure. Now, this ( ) is what I would call an image. But there are two types of images, if you look at the structure of the image. One is a solid surface. Even if under analysis it may be shown that an image, like any other object, is composed of particles. This is only a theoretical explanation of the image. In fact, traditional images are considered to be solid surfaces. They are visions, two-dimensional visions of the four-dimensional world in which we live. Thus, that imagination may be referred to as a capacity for abstracting two dimensions from this existential world, and to have two dimensions represented. An image is an abstraction. But now we have new types of images. The photographic image is the first of this new type. This is no longer a solid surface; it is, in fact, a mosaic of small elements. In the case of the photography of molecules it is a mosaic of silver compound molecules. Hence, you can no longer say that the surface is an abstraction; you have to say, rather, that it is a concretion composed of point-like elements.
I believe that this new type of image has developed as follows – I will give you the (generology) of the new image. It begins with photography, which is a mosaic of molecules. It goes on to film, which has the same ontological structure. With video, a back-jump – a change of paradigm – is achieved because it’s no longer molecules, but photons, electrons, which constitute it. You leave the chemical level, and you go on to the level of nuclear physics. A completely different sort of imagination is then mobilized. Let me put it in a different way. We have two types of images. One is due to the imagination of the first order, and it means objects. The second type of image is a concretion of point-like structure, and it means concepts. The meaning of new images is opposed to the meaning of old ones. Or, as I would put it, the vector of significance has turned around 180 degrees. This is why, if we look at those images and ask questions which refer to the old images, we ask the wrong questions. If we watch a television programme, we should not ask, "What object does it mean?" We should ask, rather, what intention of the image-maker it means. You cannot criticise a television image by deciphering the object it depicts. You have to ask from what point of view this image has been projected. This is a very ambiguous situation because if you ask the wrong question, in television for instance, you become a victim, manipulated by the image. Whereas, if you ask the right question, if you ask from what point of view the image has been projected, you will have a very strong critical instrument. One of my commitments is to teach people, as far as I can, to ask the right questions, not to become victims of the image, but to use the image as a tool for critical analysis.

Peternák: What do you think about the status of the so-called mental images, or the entire visual system in the brain?

Flusser: I told you before that the new thing about our technological revolution is that it simulates the nervous system. Now, how does the nervous system work, as far as we know at present? We get impressions from the world. These impressions are in the form of point-like impulses, which go into our nervous system. Via a very complex process, which is both electro-magnetic and chemical, these impulses go into the brain. And in a way which has not yet been fully analysed, the brain processes these impulses to become images. What we call perception is the result of this processing. We do not perceive the world immediately (instantaneously). We process input and transform it into perception.
Now, those apparatus we are talking about, for instance, the television apparatus, the video apparatus, and in synthetic images, quite clearly, do the same as the brain does. Since we do not know how the brain works, since we have only those very simple and primitive simulations, we are only at the very beginning. What I want to say is the following: The reality of the objective world is in question. We know now that we do not have to be Kantians to know that there is no sense in speaking about an objective world; we have no access to the objects. What we have are the impressions which our nerves receive. To say that the images we now produce are simulations does not make much sense. Concretely they affect us just like objects do. This is my constant, let’s say, dialogue with Baudrillard.
Baudrillard believes that we are living in a world where the simulations hide reality. I think this is a nonsensical proposition. I believe that we are in the middle of a world which is either concrete or abstract. And those images are just as concrete as is the table on which your machine is standing now. We do not have any ontological tool any longer to distinguish between a simulation and a non-simulation. The critical tool which we have to use is concreticity as opposed to abstractness. (abstraction?) No longer can we distinguish between science and art. We used to define science as the discipline which analyses the real, and art as a discipline which produces artificial things. However, now we tend to believe that the world which science analyses is an artifice which is produced by science itself.

Peternák: Do you think it is possible to find a turning point, or a point of decision, when this change comes into the relationship between science and art?

Flusser: I think I can. I think it is the moment when objectivity is abandoned as an ideal and it is substituted by inter-subjectivity. I think that in the history of philosophy, the decisive point is Carnap. I think that prior to him, it was assumed that there is some objective reality which we have to discover. Now we tend to believe that something is assumed to be real if there is a consensus about it. Reality becomes a problem of inter-subjectivity. You know, in Antiquity, the Unicorn was real because there was a consensus about its existence. It is no longer real because there is no longer any consensus concerning the Unicorn.

Vilém Flusser interviewed by László Beke nad Miklós Peternák - II.
(1992, published in Hungarian translation in Beszélő)

After having read some of your books, and hearing your recent lecture, I have a very strange impression, about which you have not spoken much: sometimes you conclude your discourse with the question of death. And I feel that all your hypotheses, and your whole way of thinking, starts from a basic point which is writing and image, or rather the word and the image – and it has a very strange link with the Bible. In fact, not only the Bible itself, but the topic of the prohibition of images, which was declared by Moses in Genesis... And so I wonder whether or not my supposition is true... Vilém Flusser: My feeling is that the basic difference between Judaism and Christianity is not the fact that for the Christians, the Messiah has already arrived, and for the Jews, he will come; this is a rather uninteresting question for me, but the fundamental thing is that for the Christians, there is something in man: a spirit, a soul, or whatever you want to call it – which will survive death. And for the Jews, the thing is much more immaterial. The idea is that we shall survive in the memory of others. Now, if my reading is correct, and it may not be, because Christianity has of course beaten back on Judaism, and there are many Jews who are Jews and still believe in the soul and in the immortality of the soul, but I do not think that’s so Jewish. I think the fundamental Jewish idea is that my immortality depends on the other person, that it is the other person who is responsible for my immortality, and I am responsible for his. This may be why Jews say of a dead person: "Let his memory be a blessing." Which may mean: "I am responsible for him."
... May I continue to be a Jew for this interview – something which is not usual for me? I don’t use my Judaism very often – but you provoke me.
Allow me to say that there is a prohibition of image for the following reason: The idea of Judaism is that God is completely different. Totally different! (Hebrew text) Which means that you cannot conceive of Him and you cannot imagine Him. It is completely unthinkable and unimaginable, and therefore theology is not possible; you cannot speak about God, but only to God. Now, if that is a fact, there is only one image -- which is the face of the other person. Because God made man in His image. And the only way I can imagine God is to look at the other person. This is to say that only through the love of my neighbour can I love God. So, if the image of the only permitted image is the image – is the face we’re given. That synthetic image – computer-image -- is the other person. Because through the computer-image, I cna talk to the other person: he sends me an image, I work on it and send it back to him – so this is the Jewish image. This is not an idol. This is not paganism. It is a way to love my neighbour, and by loving my neighbour, to love God. I am not a good Talmudist, but I would say that from a Talmud point of view, the synthetic computer-image is perfectly Jewish.

Perhaps this will sound like a joke, but I would like to ask, if we do not mention the name of the God, is there any solution – a verbal solution, a synthetic solution...?

Vilém Flusser: The name of God cannot be pronounced – and again, I am interpreting in Judaism, and I do not know whether I am right – the name of God cannot be pronounced, not for any medical reason, but because the word "Jehovah," J.H.V.H., is un portemanteau of three (Hebrew) words: I was, I am, I shall be. Now, you cannot pronounce these three words in one. This is why you cannot pronounce "Jehovah." But it just means he who was, is and will be. There’s nothing mystical about it – it’s un portemanteau.
...You will find it in none of my books, but in the back of my head, there is this idea. So far, we have felt subjects of objects, and especially subjects to God. And now, with the new techniques, we can project ourselves. And project ourselves in the face of God. I would say that projective – I would rather explain that better, but we don’t have the time – the idea is that we have, we ourselves, gone back from God – the whole existence of mankind is a step, a stepping back from God. First we have left a four-dimensional Lebenswelt, and we stepped into culture, which produces manufactured objects in three-dimensions. Then we stepped back into the imagination, to make images of objects. Then we stepped back from imagination into contextual texts, and texts are to images what images are to objects. Then we stepped back from description and culture and conception into calculation. Into zero-dimension. And I think that numbers are to texts what texts are to images, and what images are to objects. So that we have come to absolute abstraction: nothing is describable any longer, nothing is concept, cna be conceptive, nothing can be imagined. And now we can take the numbers, we can take the bytes, and we can compute them and project them back and make alternative roads. And in this way, our opposition to the face of God changes. We are no longer subjects of God – we are projects for God.
...But as I get old, and as I reflect on all these problems that we call the information revolution, the more I am reminded of my roots, which I have completely forgotten.

Intersubjectivity: media metaphors, play & provocation
Advisory Committee:
László Beke, director, Műcsarnok;
Wolfgang Meissner, director, Goethe-Institut Budapest;
Matthias Müller-Wieferig, Goethe-Institut Budapest;
Miklós Peternák, chair of the board, C3;
Zoltán Sebôk, theoretician; J.A.Tillmann, theoretician;
Organizers:Suzanne Mészöly, program director C3
Ágnes Veronika Kovács , program coordinator C3
Adele Eisenstein, program coordinátor C3

See the Goethe-Institute Budapest website on the Flusser Symposium:

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