Flusser, Vilem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. 256 pages. hardcover, $29.95. ISBN: 0816635641.
For scholars unfamiliar with Vilém Flusser's (d. 1991) work, Writings is a must-read. A collection of twenty-six articles written between the years 1967 and 1991, this anthology presents a thorough introduction to a theorist who has been overlooked, falling outside of the usual European suspects who have come to be synonymous with cutting edge theory. Flusser, who was born in Prague, but spent much of his life writing and teaching in Brazil, developed intellectually with the Old World behind him and with high hopes for the New -- leading perhaps to his fascination with "the end of history" and the future of humanity. As a result, Flusser's work is ambitious, rich with valuable insights, and a refreshingly optimistic tone. A phenomenologist interested in media, he writes with an abiding faith in the creativity that is manifest in everyday life. For readers, this translates into brief articles that can be approached by beginners and specialists alike, making it a powerful philosophical toolbox and an exciting opportunity for intellectual growth.
Rather than provide an article by article analysis, I will dwell briefly on Flusser's discussion of "code," which among the many other useful concepts, is the one that has proven most useful for me and which I read as a recurring theme in this volume. In the essay "The Codified World," Flusser describes the relationship between premodern and postmodern images:
It would be unfortunate if we wanted to think of our situation as a return to illiteracy. The images that program us are not really the kind that dominated before the invention of printing. Television programs are different from Gothic church windows, and the surfaces of soup cans are different from surfaces of Renaissance paintings. In short, the difference is this: premodern images are the products of skilled handworkers ("works of art"), and postmodern images are the products of technology. One can recognize a scientific theory at work behind the programmed images, but the same is not necessarily true for the premodern images. Premodern man lived in a world of images which meant the "world." We live in a world of images, which theories regarding the "world" hope to symbolize. This is a revolutionary new situation. (36)
At once, Flusser challenges both the naïve postmodern tendency to conflate the premodern with postmodern by collapsing all images into the same category and challenges the distinction between the modern and postmodern which sees the latter as a triumph of aesthetics over formal programming. Instead, Flusser suggests conceptual artists have known all along: the experience of creating and assimilating images in a technological era is a matter of semiotic programming, or an exercise in codework. This insight, which is developed in many different trajectories throughout the text, and which ultimately challenges scholars to push beyond the already known -- an especially important challenge for folks working in "New Media."
Other articles in the collection bear titles like, "Taking Up Residence in Homelessness," "On the End of History," "Images in the New Media," and "What Is Communication?" Although Flusser covers a wide range of topics, he uses each instance as a point of departure for philosophical musings which speak to each other. The result is a world in which the practices of the historian intersect with the manipulations of the photographer, the writer's words meets with the refugee's odyssey, and the critic mingles with the programmer. Taken piecemeal or as a whole, Writings has the potential to tinker with people's assumptions and conjure up new critical vocabularies. This volume includes an insightful critical overview of the generous collection by editor, Andreas Ströhl and a detailed bibliography of Flusser's work, increasing its utility as critical toolbox. Since each article is highly-readable and self-contained, it is also a great introduction for those who are looking to read something new.