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To be swallowed whole

Notes On
Vilem Flusser
Engaging with photographs in a traditional sense is often the last thing we do, that is if we ever get to them at all. In this whirlpool of a digital ecosystem, the apparatuses (described by Flusser as a plaything or game that simulates thought, or an overarching term for a non-human agency, e.g. the camera, the computer, a social media platform, etc…), surrounding the artifact (or the image) are much more engaging and spellbinding than the artifact itself. Photographs are produced for the purpose of being “Instagrammed.” It is telling enough that the corporate name of an apparatus itself can become a verb (“to instagram”), embodying in and of itself a reversal of the function of the image. Flusser, in Towards A Philosophy of Photography, claims that the content of any given photograph is actually that of the camera that produced it: ridding us from any human agency (and responsibility) in the process. Is it human consciousness that governs the “apparatus” or is it the exact opposite of that?  From Flusser’s standpoint, the more traditional content of the cultural artifact is, entirely and obtrusively, subsumed by the apparatuses (social, technical, political) that are governing it, and thereby defining it. Flusser’s ideas, though at the time concerned with print-based photography, are thresholds in explaining the continual reshaping of our relationship to the cultural artifact, or photograph, in the digital age. Going hand in hand with Moholy-Nagy’s premonition that “those who are ignorant in matters of photography will be the illiterates of tomorrow,”[1] is it possible, after all, to perceive of an existence outside of the world of images? Are we not surrounded day and night by images that are telling us a story, selling us a product, warning us of a certain danger or another, inviting us to project onto them our hopes and fears and ultimate desires? Do these images define us and thus define the world that we inhabit, or do we, in fact, define them?

Flusser argues that the camera is the ancestor of apparatuses, which are very much “robotizing all aspects of our lives, from one’s most public acts to one’s innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires.”[2] When we consider social media — from blogs to Twitter, to Facebook, and Instagram — we can immediately verify his premonition. In approaching social media, or perhaps taking part of its world, one must learn the unspoken rules in order to play. Obeying such rules — going with the apparatus instead of against it — results in debatably satisfying “victories,” substantiated by gains in the number of followers and virtual likes. Failure to follow these rules — which don’t actually exist in reality but are rather a set of community-based standards that everyone seems to magically know and comply with — results in total isolation, or what has been dubbed as “social suicide.” When one tweets, the 280-character constraint (which previously was 140) determines the form of the content, forcing us to tailor ever more concise responses in order to comply with the Twitter apparatus. When one “instagrams,” the square format restraint forces one to consider the former in the process of image making, thus complying with the Instagram apparatus, and seeing the world quite literally through its lens. These restraints are feeding into a regression in the process of information reception. After all, what can one express in two hundred and eighty characters? To what length should one go in order to create the most robotized and concise of ideas? These restrictions — which people rarely think of as such (seeing as the mind gets programmed to understand digital information sharing in the terms and within the construct of these parameters) — are indeed robotizing many aspects of our lives. People’s “innermost thoughts, feelings, and desires,”[3] which they are so often compelled to share online, are functioning within the parameters of a restricting and cage-like apparatus. Thus, people are in more ways than one, going with the apparatus and letting it govern their interactions and “online presence.”

[1] Flusser, Vilém. Towards a philosophy of photography. Reaktion Books, 2014. pp 90
[2] Ibid., 71
[3] Ibid., 71

New York, Beirut